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.





Critical Chain Project Management for Gifted Education

I’ve been reading up on formal project management methodologies and I’m starting to view many things through the project management lens. This has led me to wonder if perhaps some of the problems we see in public education could be addressed by using a different method of managing the project of education.

Like all projects, cost, resources, time, quality, risk, and scope constrain public education.

As we have added more and more educational requirements and standards to the teaching load, we have increased the scope Project Constraintsof public education.This scope increase has occurred during a time of budget cuts so the cost and resources available have gone down and the time spent in school has stayed the same. Predictably, this has decreased public education quality while increasing the risk that our student are unable to compete globally. Because public polices and checks on education have focused exclusively at the risk to students below average, the gifted students have suffered the most. If we define a successful education as one where students learn at their maximum ability level, our highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, and profoundly gifted students have a very high risk of not being successfully educated.

While obvious solutions include increasing funding and lengthen the school year, political constraints make those ideas virtually impossible to implement. Besides, by themselves they won’t solve the problems with public education. Instead we need to look at how we are managing the project of public education. To the extent that we are managing it at all, we seem to use a traditional critical path management method.

In public education, students begin in kindergarten and steadily learn their education tasks in a rigidly defined sequential order until high school graduation. In critical path project management methodology, if a task in the critical path is delayed, the entire project is delayed by the same amount of time. Unfortunately in our public education system, we do not have a good way of delaying the entire educational project. When a student fails to complete an educational task in the allotted time, they end up with permanent gaps in their education, become discouraged, graduate with a GPA that is below their innate potential, or even fail to graduate at all.

The problems with critical path management for the project of public education include:

  1. Grade level educational requirements are based on projected average “optimal” learning and fail to account for resource availability. By setting a learning schedule and then trying to fit all students into that schedule from the beginning, we fail to account for the vast differences in resource availability between the students. These resources can vary with each student throughout their education and include family support, financial stability, educational support, emotional/social security, existing subject knowledge, innate learning ability (giftedness), and available study time.
  2. Student Syndrome. Teachers and students know they have a set period of time to teach specific subjects and concepts.  If the actual learning task will take 5 days of study for the student but the teacher has allocated 10 days, the student will slack off for the first 5 days and only put in effort for the second 5 days. This creates two issues. First, many of our students, especially our gifted students, waste a significant amount of their potential learning time because they are unable to work at their natural pace. Second, if the student guessed wrong and it will actually take them a bit longer to learn a concept, they fall behind.
  3. Bad Multitasking. In critical path management students and teachers work on several ideas and subjects in short periods of time. Teachers must constantly show all students making progress across a wide spectrum of knowledge areas. This leads to the school day being split into multiple, short chunks of subject time which negatively impacts deep learning  — especially during the elementary school years. It can also lead to time being wasted on non-critical learning tasks.
  4. Parkinson’s Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Regardless of the time it may actually take for a class to learn a concept or body of knowledge, the class will work on the subject matter for the length of time the teacher or the school district have blocked out for it on the schedule.

As opposed to critical path, critical chain project management directly addresses many of the above issues. It takes into account that fact that some tasks will take longer than anticipated and others will go faster. It allows any unused “buffer” time to accumulate. The fast tasks balance out the slow tasks enabling the project of educating our students to a certain level to finish on time or early. Switching to critical chain project management for gifted education will allow our top students to excel and if we implement it across the board it has the potential to improve outcomes for all students, without increasing costs or lengthening the school year.

Critical chain public education will enable students to work at their own pace, move ahead when they personally are ready, and focusing in detail on one subject at a time. This will virtually eliminate student syndrome, bad multitasking, and Parkinson’s Law. It also may push us to flip our classrooms. Many computerized educational programs from Aleks to the Khan Academy already are using a critical chain approach to education. In these, students work at their own pace on one educational task at a time until mastery, without regard to a set calendar learning schedule or the mastery level of other students in their class.

We should change how we write educational standards. Instead of stating when students will learn a specific topic, the standards should define the critical chain order of subject mastery. We need to become comfortable with the idea that not all kids learn at the same pace and that there will be wide differences in knowledge. In reality, these wide differences already exist but they are hidden from us in most public schools. We rarely explore the depths of individual student knowledge, we only focus on the specific bits of information in the standards. Critical path education will allow all students, gifted and average, to dive deeply into subjects and even indulge their passions. Within a classroom, one student may spend a year immersed in American history and fulfill multiple “years” worth of requirements in just one year while their classmate may spend the same year focused on math. Similar to college undergraduate degrees, students will know what they must learn for each say, 4-year chunk of education. They will need to show progress each year through standardized testing, papers, and presentations. However, what they learn at any given time and how fast they learn it, is in their control. They can slow down for subjects that are personally confusing and speed up for topics that come to them naturally.

Yes, our gifted students may finish standard materials early, perhaps even years early than other students. This isn’t a negative. Our schools should maximize the potential of all students, not just educate everyone to the same, generic level each school year. By defining a critical chain of educational requirements, letting students know what those requirements are, and letting students work at their own pace through those requirements, we will improve educational outcomes for all our students.