If You Think You Don’t Need Others, Think Again

Many years ago when I was an undergraduate studying engineering I thought I was going into a solo profession. It was all about physics, math, and problem solving and not much influenced by the softer skills of communication and collaboration. And I appreciated this because it meant I didn’t have to deal with imprecise communication, such as in English class where my teachers always seemed to feel there was a single correct, hidden interpretation of some boring book that had been assigned to me to read. It also fit well with the image of invention that seemed to be propagated by Hollywood and the mass media: technology moves forward through the efforts of individuals who discover/invent new principles/machines that make the world a better place.

Then I started working as an engineer. What do you do once you’ve solved a problem? You can feel good about yourself, or you can communicate the problem and solution to someone else. Communication skills, especially clear and unambiguous writing matter. If the problem is relevant, then others will want to take advantage of what you’ve done and now collaboration is needed to help them do so. Unless you have the time to talk to every possible user individually, that means that documentation matters. You need to be able to organize the concepts that are needed to understand the solution, and then write it down in an understandable manner. Explain the who, what, why, where, and when that you have delivered to the world.

Only a little later I also found that problems tend to evolve with time. The solution that was ideal last year needs to be updated today. This is especially true when working with software. And if you’ve been away from your solution for a year or two or more, you may not remember why you made all of the decisions you did, or how the details of the solution work together. That means that unless you’ve documented well how you arrived at your solution and how it works, you will end up spending time and effort rediscovering what you did once before. And thus documenting a solution and how you arrived at it became an essential part of engineering because the first version of anything is rarely the last or best version of it.

A few more years in I came to realize that if I wanted to work on problems that I thought were interesting, important, or fun I needed to be able to convince my manager (or his/her manager, or the CEO) that those same problems were important to them. For some reason they thought that since they were paying my salary I should work on their priorities. The ability to present a cogent and compelling argument was critical to my making sure that they had the right priorities.

With time I came to learn that there aren’t very many really interesting problems that can be solved by a single, isolated individual. That means that if you want to work on large, interesting, and meaningful problems then teamwork is an essential skill. Communication and collaboration, motivating others, providing tactful feedback, and explaining goals are thus central to meaningful technical problem solving.

Having a diversity of perspectives on your team often leads to better solutions both because you start from a richer pool of possibilities and because you have more points of view on which solution attributes are most valuable.

In the real world, problems tend to have many solutions. Some are easier, less expensive, more thorough, less risky, or faster to develop. But almost never is a single solution all of those things at once. If everybody in your team looks at the problem the same way, then the number of possible solutions you evaluate will be small. Similarly, more variety in inputs makes it more likely that the resulting “values” that the final choice embodies will be representative of a large customer base. And if your goal is to make a difference, a large customer base is a good thing.

So looking back on several decades in engineering I’ve found that the writing and collaboration skills that I tried to avoid formally learning about as an undergraduate have consistently shown up as essential throughout my career and continue to be central to my success as an engineer and a human being. Teamwork and evolutionary development deliver an incredible range of improvements to the world while isolated scientists/engineers delivering a complete technical revolution is a reality only in fiction.