This post is part of a series on Being Awesome at your job. The first post was on how to manage your career, the second on being a great person to have on a team, and this third part is all about communication. Since it was soooooo long, I divided it in two parts one on listening and one on sharing information (this one!).
Be a great communicator (cont.)
Being a great technologist like means that you can understand complex systems, and wrap your head around difficult problems, but not all of us are great at explaining things so everyone can understand them. Since there are really two parts to communicating, taking in information (listening) and pushing out information (speaking/writing) let’s handle each one separately.
The other part of communication is what is emitted and pushed outward. And when it comes to sharing and imparting information there are two key forms of communication: verbal and written.
Before we get into each type, let’s start with the common themes:
Know your audience.
As with any sort of communication, understanding whom you are talking to, and more importantly, what they care about is the key to an effective message. This means thinking about the concerns of the audience, and the right level of detail and granularity for your message.
Less is more.
Most of us technologists love details, I know I always want to know about how and why and the internal details of the way things work. However, it is important to remember that not everyone thinks that way. Moreover, people are busy and most of us are on information overload (with all the emails, texts, etc.), so spending a few extra moments to cull down your message to something clear and concise is appreciated and increases the chances that it will be heard/read. Plus, if people want more details, they can always ask you to elaborate.
More is also better – but when it comes to frequency.
When it comes to any project or incident, keeping communication frequent and regular is a key thing that can easily be overlooked (after all typing out a status mail takes time away from the work, right?).
One of the first things I learned when I moved from being an engineer to a lead was that you have to trust the people on your team (pretty basic), but in order to trust that the right things are happening I needed information and insight into what was happening. With some people they were very communicative and asked for my thoughts on direction and priorities, and let me know their choices; but others didn’t let me know what was happening until they were completely done and had solved the problem. I almost always thought the former were better performers than the latter (now I don’t let this happen by getting insight other ways, but you can easily see how you could fall into this line of thinking), and I always knew what they were doing when my boss or my peers asked (making them look good to others as well).
This means that in order to quell your manager’s concerns and earn their trust the best thing you can do is communicate. One way to think about it is that work doesn’t often count if people don’t know you are doing it. And many won’t think to ask; you have to share and push the information upwards and outwards.
When I first joined a 24/7 website team and was tasked with looking into operational issues my tendency was to wait until I understood the problem before responding. I wanted to reply with the email that said “No need to worry about the transactions, things are back online and fixed”, worrying that if I wrote and let people know that there were issues they would feel engineering and my team had let the company down. This line of thought was bad for my career, because when the VP sent an email to the whole team “I tried using the site and my download didn’t go through, don’t we have alarms for this kind of thing?” it gave the impression we hadn’t been monitoring things and that no one was looking into it but him. This was a great lesson for me, I changed my behavior to reply right away as soon as I was aware of an issue letting everyone know that I was on top of it and could be reached if needed. There is no sense hiding mistakes or uncertainty, and letting everyone know you are on top of things will make it easier to get the help you might need (which are both good things). If you take responsibility for mistakes or problems it is much harder for others to get angry with you about them (btw, this tip is also really good in relationships).
And if my personal anecdote didn’t ring with you, remembering that people will assume the worst without information (that you aren’t getting your work done, or that no one is looking into the operational problem) so providing information and keeping people up to date and providing insight into your work is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your visibility and career.
When it comes to agile software development standup and scrum tends to address some of this – team members provide daily status, but sometimes it is important to communicate to a broader audience, or in the case of operational issues, scheduling is not a luxury you can afford. Therefore learning to master other forms of communicating status is key. You should be able to write a mean status report (more tips on writing below), keep track of important details (I use Evernote + calendar to keep track of all the things I do weekly), and provide frequent updates to your manager and team.
Communicate in multiple mediums.
Many people absorb information in different ways. I know that I am a visual learner and have a very hard time digesting verbal information; this is part of the reason I take copious notes (and why I had such a hard time with lectures in school). If you understand this about your audience, then it is important to craft your communication style to cater to them – that way your message is much more likely to be heard. The best way to do this is to provide your message multiple ways (this also reinforces the point).
If you have a meeting, send out the summary of the topics and important takeaways from the discussion. This way all of the attendees or interested parties can read and review the information, and any important calls or decisions will be documented (with a date) for future reference. For managers, if you have a performance problem, or an employee who you really want to recognize, it is not enough to discuss these things in your one on one meeting. Discuss the topics, but also follow up in an email after the meeting. Doing this will reinforce any point that you make and will ensure both you and the employee are on the same page with respect to their performance (and as an aside, I actually printed out a praise email my boss once sent me because it made me so happy).
A big part of verbal communication is actually covered in listening above. The biggest difference between verbal and written communication is that someone else is involved in the former. This means engaging in the conversation, asking questions, paying attention (to words and body language) and showing respect by not interrupting or assuming their responses.
When it comes to verbal communication, most of the conversation is likely to be improvisational, and so other than practicing having conversations with people (which most of us are doing daily anyway – at least when we are away from our computers) there isn’t a lot more that you can do in everyday conversation. However, when it comes to really important verbal communication – like a job interview, speech, presentation or important sales meeting – preparation is the key to success.
Here some tips to help you prepare:
- Know your audience. Who are they and what do they need/want to know? What are their problems or concerns? Thinking through these ahead of time ensures that you are presenting the right topics that will engage your users.
- Communicate at the right level. Is your audience knowledgeable on your topic? Do you need to present a lot of background information to frame the problem, or can you cut to the chase? Thinking through these ahead of time can ensure the right level of detail for your audience, making the most of your time.
- Understand the context. What else is happening in the world/internet/industry on the same topic? How can you differentiate and add value? Make sure that you know other happenings so if someone asks you about a topic there will be a greater chance you can speak intelligently about it.
- Practice. Like most things the more you do it, the better you will get. Trust me, I practice a ton for any talk or presentation, although I am also a bit of a rookie.
This is probably the biggest area where most technologists could improve (since if you are like me, you do a lot of your communication via email). Learning to communicate effectively in writing can be a huge win for your career, since keeping everyone on the same page is key to any engineering or operations role.
Put the important part first.
People are bombarded with emails all day everyday, and a lot of people read them on their phone or mobile device. Therefore it is important to make it easy to digest and skim your emails (more on this in a moment), but if you want to get your point across put it first. The one sentence or important point should always be at the top of the email, with the details below. This allows people to make a call if it is worth reading the rest of the email or not – for many busy people the conclusion may be sufficient. Just make sure that it really easy one sentence and not a few paragraphs.
Design messages to skim.
Whenever someone tells me that an engineer isn’t good at communicating or managing up, my first question is “Do they send our essays or paragraphs of text to explain things?” And more often than not the person who is making the accusation replies, “How did you know?” This is one of the more common email communication problems that tend to befall us technical folk (and btw part of the reason I can point it out is because that is how I used to type out status!). I think it is because most of us like details and so we include everything assuming others want that information as well. But regardless of the reason, there are some easy ways to solve it.
One technique that I use is to write out the email as I would normally – paragraphs and all. Then I go through and move things into sections, add bullet points and headings. The same way I write these blog posts actually.
Other people will write an outline and then fill in the details as needed. Either way you should focus on being concise, use things like bullets, headers, and emphasis (bold, italics, colors) to get your point across.
Here is an example from a recent email I sent and then revised:
Hi team, Thanks for the thoughtful answers. We are going to try to pull together our estimates for this month based on current spend, and we can compare that with what we spend of the rest of the month, which should help us project actual spend. Also, there are some cost savings to be realized in 2 of the projects still (despite spot price savings – which is going to cost us more). The first project of moving Silo to wowrack (should be realized in October, but has an initial $8k hit, so the real savings start in Nov/Dec), and the second project is adding EBS index servers in the API (should have a $30-40k cost savings per month – again not to be realized until Nov/Dec). We had hopped to get a lot of savings by moving things to spot, but now with fluctuations being what they are, we are moving things away from spot (so going in the other direction – because now we aren’t just not putting things on spot, we are taking big parts of our services and moving them to spot to avoid potential operations). Also, because of the crawl service outage, we are going to spending extra to spin up more instances to process through the backlog and catch-up (we don’t have projects on this yet, but should by Monday or so once we start processing). We also are going to need to add more projects to the backlog around operations and cost savings now, which is going to really impact the roadmap. We plan to reconvene on this next week. Hope that helps. We will get back soon with some more detailed actual/project costs soon. Kate
And here is the email I actually sent:
Hi team, Thanks for your patience, here are some other things we are going to do which should help. September Projection We are going to try to pull together our estimates for this month based on current spend, and we can compare that with what we spend of the rest of the month, which should help us project actual spend going forward. This should also help us understand the budget for this month too. So what is still going to work from the plan? There are some cost savings to be realized in 2 of the projects still (despite spot price savings – which is going to cost us more):
What is the fallout from the plan? We had hopped to get a lot of savings by moving things to spot, but now with fluctuations being what they are, we are moving things away from spot (so going in the other direction – because now we aren’t just not putting things on spot, we are taking big parts of our services and moving them to spot to avoid potential operations). This means that we not just miss savings, but plan to spend more than we did for the same service in August. Also, because of the crawl service outage, we are going to spending extra to spin up more instances (more $$) to process through the backlog and catch-up (we don’t have projections on this cost yet, but should by Monday or so once we start processing). Next steps
- Moving Silo to wowrack (should be realized in October, but has an initial $8k hit, so the real savings start in Nov/Dec)
- The EBS index servers in the API (should have a $30-40k cost savings per month – again not to be realized until Nov/Dec)
Hope that helps. We will get back soon with some more detailed actual/project costs soon. Kate
- Update our current costs and projections for Sept and October.
- Revisit project priorities. We thought that we would be able to save $100k+ with the projects and move to spot. Since that didn’t pan out, we need to revisit our plan. We will likely need to add more projects to the backlog around cost savings now, which is going to really impact the roadmap. We plan to reconvene on this next week.
- More projects to assist with operations. After this week, it is become clear we need to invest in some more operational work, particularly around the crawl service and deleting/selecting data. This will likely be several months of work, but will make life much easier in the long run. We hadn’t embarked on this yet, because the ROI was low unless we had a big outage – like what happened.
As you can see with this example the use of colors, space and bullets make the email much, much easier to digest and skim. Next time you write an email, see if you can improve it for your audience and make the message much more clear.
Use the subject line effectively.
Many people overlook the subject of an email, and I know that I get emails with subjects like “Info”, “Update”, or “Follow up on the project”. Just glancing at subject it is not easy to tell what that email is about, if that email requires any action, or even if it is important. Having an informative subject line will improve the chances your recipient will read and respond in a timely manner.
Here are some of my favorite tips:
- Make it informative. Instead of saying “info” say “Info requested for Nov Social Release” – this subject tells the recipient that the email is in regards to information requested on an upcoming project (Social) release. In general try to explain they why, what, and when in the subject (why you are sending the email, what is the main topic, and when the email needs to be handled).
- Add a preface. Simple things like “Important:”, “Urgent:”, “Action required:”, “Responses needed:” or “FYI:” added to the front of the email subject makes it much easier for people to skim through their inbox and zoom in on the items that require action. I know from experience, things like urgent and important catch my attention and I am much more likely to open those first.
- Add a date. In the event you need a response by a specific date or time, add that to the subject too, since it will help the recipient understand the urgency of their reply.
- Keep it simple. The more specific you are the better, since it will make it easier to search and find. Plus, you don’t want it to be too long because then people won’t be able to read the whole thing in an email preview (what phones or mail clients do in inbox view). If you can’t fit it all in, then simplify and use the key information to start off the message.
Make it clear who needs to respond.
Like productive meetings, good emails make it clear what are the action items and who is on the hook for each one. The best way to do this is either at the top or bottom of the mail (there are lots of arguments for putting it at the top of a long email so people don’t miss it) a clear list of next steps with designated owners. If you aren’t sure who should be the owner, I always guess and then put a note at the end of the list to ask the assignees to correct me if they aren’t the best person.
Another great idea on this concept is if you send an email to a group of people or distribution list, instead of putting something like “Thoughts?” at the end of the email, ask the specific people you want to respond. This helps people know what is expected of them. For example, if I sent out an email to my team I might say something like:
Leah, please tell me you opinions and this topic. Everyone else this is just an FYI (although feel free to reply if you want).
This makes it really clear I am expecting a thought from Leah in response to my mail (btw, bonus points for letting her know when you need her thoughts). This helps set expectations and ensures that you get a response from the people that you need/want to hear back from.
Hopefully these tips will help you write better emails, and improve your communication skillz. J I know that these definitely helped me a lot in my career. If you have other ideas/suggestions definitely leave them in the comments.
PS: I wrote another blog post on a similar topic a while back – Email for Developers.