5 Rules for Asking Engineers Questions

The other day I was listening to an interview with a project management specialist on how to handle different personalities on project teams. While most of what she said seemed helpful, when it came to working with engineers and IT admin types, she went off on a huge tangent on how “those people” had ego issues. She seemed to think they purposely were difficult and slowed projects down because they needed to feel important. She expressed that when engineers are reluctant to commit to a timetable and/or are reticent about giving details on how far they are through a particular phase of a project, it is because they want to feel important.

She couldn’t be more wrong. Very few engineers are the ego maniacs she describes and even those that are can be very easy to work with. Non-engineers just need to understand projects from the perspective of the engineers.

Engineers know that computers and software are not 100% predictable and reliable. They plan for the unexpected and build redundancies into systems where possible, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been burned. The more experience an engineer has, the more likely it is that he or she has spent hours or days recovering data and/or rebuilding a system that never should have gone down. The more familiar an admin is with different hardware and operating systems, the more likely he or she is to have a strong opinion on what will work. Yet, because sometime it just doesn’t, the more reluctant that admin may be to give a direct answer on what should be chosen and how long it will take to deploy. They have all seen “simple” installs and upgrades that did not perform as advertised. The last thing they want is for someone who does not understand the subtleties of their craft to hold them to expectations and deadlines that may turn out to be unrealistic.

You can start to improve your ability to work with engineers just by following some simple rules for asking questions.

Rule 1: Whenever possible, ask questions in person. This will allow you to see if the engineer is deep in thought coding or troubleshooting. Don’t just start talking, wait a minute or two until they finish typing or reading and turn to you with their full attention. Some of the biggest misunderstandings happen when questions are not fully heard.

Rule 2: If you can’t ask your question in person, ask it through email, not in a phone call. For the reasons listed above, if you just call an engineer and start talking, there is a good chance he or she will miss the first chunk of the conversation. This is especially true if they are actively troubleshooting an urgent problem. You will only have half their attention and it is unlikely the answer they give you will include all the details you need.

Rule 3: Whether you ask the question in person or in email, summarize their answer in an email confirmation just to make sure you understood their answer and you are both on the same page.

Rule 4: Semantics matter. Engineers tend to approach things as black/white, on/off, zero/one. This helps them greatly when working with code and computers and is something you need to keep in mind when asking them questions. To a non-engineering mind, the following questions may appear the same, but to an engineer are very different.

Can you do X?
Can we (as a company) do X?
Can anyone we have on staff do X?
Is it easy to find someone who can do X?
Should we do X?
Does doing X follow best acceptable practices?
Will doing X take so much time that it isn’t worth it?
Have we done X before?  Were the circumstances the same?  What were the benefits and drawbacks of doing X?

Rule 5: Whenever possible, questions should initially be phrased in term of the functionality you would like to see instead of an exact method of achieving that functionality.

Ask: What is the best way to set this up with a CMS so the customer can directly update their site?

Instead of: Can you put the XYZ content management system on their server?

Generally, engineers, especially introverted engineers, will answer the exact question asked. They will not necessarily volunteer all the additional information you may need. By following the rules for asking engineers questions, you will improve your ability to work with the engineers on your team.

 

 

 

 

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