A call to action for engineering: reimagining systems

Nicole Sanchez wrote a tweet the other day that sparked my writer fire: “Reimagine every system. The problems seem intractable; they aren’t.” I retweeted and said I was mulling over that. This post is the result.

The engineers I know are dedicated to solving complex problems using innovative, magic-making ideas. They work tirelessly to master computer to computer interaction and human to computer interaction in pursuit of their company missions and personal and professional goals. As many of us in the Bay Area know all too well, however, this field continues to marinade in befuddlement over the most fundamental (and also most complex) interaction of all: human to human.

There is no algorithm to define and correct poor communication and behavior in the workplace. Fixing mistreatment of women and minorities cannot be valued with big O notation or solved with an app. It takes sheer human effort.

Many in this field are suffering a crisis of faith and trust, and the future of tech may very well be influenced by how companies like Uber currently choose to proceed (because it’s not just Uber; let’s stop ignoring that). Will engineering maintain the status quo, sticking a bandage over the gaping, hemorrhaging wound of how women and minorities are treated? Or will it actually try to repair and heal in an intentional, authentic way?

If the latter, then the next question is how will it repair and heal? I offer this suggestion, which blends my medical knowledge, my background in international relations/diplomacy, and my experience in education:

Much like the body has different systems with unique and equally important roles in restoring itself step by step to homeostasis — which all participate — engineering organizations’ various areas and teams should consider what their role(s) to assist in healing should be. And then each person (each and every person) in that area/on that team should reflect on what their contribution to that role will be.

The contributions decided upon will not utilize a technical skillset per se, and this can be very uncomfortable for some. It is, however, just as important to know about and use strong, healthy interpersonal skills in this profession as the latest storage and data decisions or a new way of writing a feature to a major app.

One “system” that, if not already available should be assembled and deployed with as much priority as money-making code, is a learning and development team devoted to engineering. This team should:

  • Sit at the intersection of subject matter expertise and education
  • Call on educational research and theory to inform teaching and the learning experience
  • Focus on teaching and learning for all engineers whether they are in their first day or have been around for years
  • Account for various cultural and linguistic nuances while ensuring that content is consistent so that all engineers in an organization are aware of and operate with the same standards

This kind of team can use its position to help improve engineering communication skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence through how learning and development are delivered. (These “people skills,” coincidentally, usually fall under Human Resources learning and development, just without the smart implementation from educational research’s insights. So there’s a starting point already built in, most likely, in the form of professionals who have ideas on people development).

Additionally, new hires, whether engineers or managers, could benefit from an introductory class on cultural/community expectations, values, or norms during their on-boarding that is taught in a way that illustrates the kind of communication expectations they will need to embody.

This post is my way of making space for conversation to innovate with me. Many individuals and companies are coming up with solutions to different aspects of this human to human interaction conundrum, but these are then falling into their own neat silos and boxed-in categories for the sake of efficiency, scalability, and likely, traditional business tactics. (Have you been to your company’s “unconscious bias training” yet?) These responses aren’t a bad thing; I just know we can do better.

Engineers essentially work to make lives better in communities of various sizes by reimagining systems. I dare us to call on our diverse, unlikely backgrounds, to do the same for those engineers’ profession.