Soft skills 101: Going from a good engineer to a great one
By Engine Room Posted 8mth(s) ago Reading Time: A few minutes
If there’s one area that we engineers are most misunderstood for, it’s that we’re all about the hard skills, and none about the soft skills. To be fair, from calculating to coding to optimising, the bulk of our work is all about the solid stuff. But boy does it hurt when others assume we can’t hold a good conversation, especially when professional development experts say that ‘human’ skills are vital for thriving in jobs of the future.
If you’re reading this then you probably relate, and you’re wondering how to break free of the stereotype. Well, the first thing to know is that it is perfectly OK not to have natural soft skills, especially when the traits that make us good at our jobs are the technical ones. For example, in prototype testing, we see the results as black and white - it works or it doesn’t. But being a good team player sometimes means being able to consider the grey zone. Working life is complicated that way, but that’s why we’re here – to show you how you can master soft skills with three simple Cs.
Do you ever feel like sometimes, when talking to a non-engineer, it’s like you’re speaking in another language? It gets awkward and frustrating, we know, especially when we sound just like a regular guy to our ears. You see, years of studying and working have made us so used to industry terms that they become part of our daily vocabulary, and we often forget that people outside the field have no reason to know them.
So how can you communicate your thoughts in a way that the man on the street would understand? The first step is to catch yourself whenever you are using jargon, and then find another way to make your point. Think of how you can break it down, and try to use descriptive words or analogies. For example, instead of saying “use case”, say “when someone presses this button”.
Why is this important? Because we don’t work in a vacuum and no matter how big or small your role is, you need to be able to communicate your work to others operating on different pieces of the system, like the designers, product managers or even company stakeholders and clients. A good way to start sharpening this skill is to start talking about what you do with your family members or non-engineering friends. Then, look for opportunities at work to present - think breakfast meetings and internal brainstorms.
How can there be creativity in engineering when our work is steeped in technicality. The truth is, creativity is at the centre of every engineering discipline. Creativity is not just about the ability to come up with something visually pleasing, but also about how we think about problems and, in turn, develop solutions.
Because of how we’re trained, we often lean on our perfectly honed analytical skills when approaching a challenge, applying a series of formulae and rules to come up with a solution. While this generally works for structured problems, over relying on this tried-and-tested method is hardly foolproof especially when dealing with new projects or products. So how can we get better at thinking out of the box?
One of the easiest ways is to ask questions – open-ended ones that welcome an exploration of varying methods and differing solutions. For example, “What materials can we trial for this application?” or “What are some changes we can make for the machine to run at faster speed?”. By asking questions that call for insightful, long-form answers, you get to point out logical fallacies, assumptions or exceptions, which leads to the discovery of new options!
And don’t just speak to your direct team - get a range of perspectives, especially from people around you who aren’t as trained in linear thinking. Their point of view could very well reveal something to you that you hadn’t thought of in the first place!
Step one to building an effective, professional relationship with others, especially engineers, is to remember that everyone in the room plays a different role. As engineers, we’re kings and queens of the ‘hows’. As in, how can we make the process more efficient, or how can we prolong a product’s life cycle. Focusing on the how, use your two newfound skills above to show how you’re collaborating. Ask questions about the ‘what’ and the ‘whys’, and then in simple terms, explain how you can help meet those objectives with your ‘hows’.
And then, be open to feedback and suggestions! Sure, the people around the meeting table might not all be engineers, but remember what we said about getting perspective - you need them to unlock more possibilities, especially ones that hadn’t crossed your mind.
So you see, in many ways, social skills are more important today than ever. As intelligent machines take over more manual and basic cognitive tasks, the value that you bring to the table is not just your technical competency, but your social abilities. Why? Because nailing your interpersonal relationships plus rocking at your job is what will take you from a good engineer to a great one.