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How to Talk to Non-Engineers

Engineers and programmers in particular are generally recognized by popular culture as being different from other people. This implies that other people are different from us. This is worth bearing in mind when communicating with non-engineers; you should always understand the audience.

Non-engineers are smart, but not as grounded in creating technical things as we are. We make things. They sell things and handle things and count things and manage things, but they are not experts on making things. They are not as good at working together on teams as engineers are (there are no doubt exceptions.) Their social skills are generally as good as or better than engineers in non-team environments, but their work does not always demand that they practice the kind of intimate, precise communication and careful subdivisions of tasks that we do.

Non-engineers may be too eager to please and they may be intimidated by you. Just like us, they may say ‘yes’ without really meaning it to please you or because they are a little scared of you, and then not stand behind their words.

Non-programmers can understand technical things but they do not have the thing that is so hard even for us - technical judgement. They do understand how technology works, but they cannot understand why a certain approach would take three months and another one three days. (After all, programmers are anecdotally horrible at this kind of estimation as well.) This represents a great opportunity to synergize with them.

When talking to your team you will, without thinking, use a sort of shorthand, an abbreviated language that is effective because you will have much shared experience about technology in general and your product in particular. It takes some effort not to use this shorthand with those that don't have that shared experience, especially when members of your own team are present. This vocabulary creates a wall between you and those that do not share it, and, even worse, wastes their time.

With your team, the basic assumptions and goals do not need to be restated often, and most conversation focuses on the details. With outsiders, it must be the other way around. They may not understand things you take for granted. Since you take them for granted and don't repeat them, you can leave a conversation with an outsider thinking that you understand each other when really there is a large misunderstanding. You should assume that you will miscommunicate and watch carefully to find this miscommunication. Try to get them to summarize or paraphrase what you are saying to make sure they understand. If you have the opportunity to meet with them often, spend a little bit of time asking if you are communicating effectively, and how you can do it better. If there is a problem in communication, seek to alter your own practices before becoming frustrated with theirs.

I love working with non-engineers. It provides great opportunities to learn and to teach. You can often lead by example, in terms of the clarity of your communication. Engineers are trained to bring order out of chaos, to bring clarity out of confusion, and non-engineers like this about us. Because we have technical judgement and can usually understand business issues, we can often find a simple solution to a problem.

Often non-engineers propose solutions that they think will make it easier on us out of kindness and a desire to do the right thing, when in fact a much better overall solution exists which can only be seen by synergizing the outsider's view with your technical judgement. I personally like Extreme Programming because it addresses this inefficiency; by marrying the estimation quickly to the idea, it makes it easier to find the idea that is the best combination of cost and benefit.

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