Young worker at the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad 40th street shops, 1942.

Engineer-speak vs. Marketing-speak: Talking to engineers successfully

E. Forrest Christian Change, Managing, Reviews - Books 1 Comment

What does it take to speak to the whole company? Many people get locked into the language of work used by their own silo, making it hard to communicate well with people from the other areas. Notorious failures have occurred when a CEO who comes from Marketing tries to communicate to the engineers.

This struck me in a passage in You’re in Charge, Now What?: The 8 Point Plan by Thomas J. Neff and James M. Citrin. They have provided a great discussion about how incoming CEOs can successfully accomplish the first 100 days, creating a foundation that can be built on years into the future.

Marketing guy Jeff Killeen had the culture shock of starting as CEO at GlobalSpec. GlobalSpec is an engineering-focused company, and here he talks about the struggles he had both in developing a relationship with technical genius & founder, John Schneiter, and the engineers of the company.

If you work with engineers or developers, this is relevant.

I found I had to be very precise and resist my natural temptation to use too many superlatives when describing the accomplishments in the business. John would say, ‘You spin things all the time. YOu make everything sound good.’ I’d say, ‘John, that was good.’ And he would say, ‘But you make it sound like it’s even better than it is. We’re engineers. We don’t use words like terrific and outstanding. We say, “You did your job.” When you say that the team did a terrific job, they don’t believe you.’ We finally agreed that whenever he though I was spinning, he would tell me. And whenever I thought he was underwhelming, I would tell him.

Killeen elaborates on how he learned to communicate in an engineering culture. “The perspective from which John comes to the business is obsessive in a wonderful way. He harks back to the philosophy that he’s building a bridge, and that a bridge cannot fail. I said, ‘John, but we’re not building a bridge, and failure is okay if we fail fast and incorporate that learning so that we can grow as fast as possible. It’s preferable to me to get eight things done well and fail at two versus doing three or four things to perfection.’ John said, ‘We’re not trained to accept a lot of failure or welcome it into the process.’ I said, ‘That’s a management concept we have to work on.'”

We had a bridge in our region declared unsafe after only a few years of use so the idea that bridges shouldn’t fail is salient.

You can’t use your own communication methods to reach other people. You have to use the ways and mores of the person to whom you are communicating. Usually there is a pretty big gulf, as Warren Kinston’s work on languages of achievement demonstrate.

This really should be tied into Stewart Brand’s discussion of building engineers vs. architects. The latter are always insisting on things that are simply stupid to the engineers, who have the responsibility of actually building and maintaining the property. The marketing people don’t have to keep a product going. They even prefer to move on to a new one. Marketing the same old product year after year isn’t that interesting. Architects are even worse. They simply design a building that’s a disaster to occupy, even worse to maintain, and then walk away. They never revisit their old designs when built to see how wretched they are in practice.

Engineers have a practical mindset about things because, as Schneiter points out, they have to make things actually work. Where marketing may have started to have numbers around it in the last 30 years or so, Engineering has always been judged on performance.

It’s very different ways of seeing the world. They both need to hear the other because isolated they will fail. Engineers without marketing become Digital Equipment Corporation. Marketing without engineering influence become late night television ads.

This is a must-have book for CEO wannades. I found it correlated with a large amount of what I have learned from many of the more theory-driven CEOs. The process they describe in their first chapter is pretty much similar to what I discovered Jos Wintermans used when he came into at Canadian Tire and Acceptance, Ltd. If you are starting a new managerial job, above Level 3 especially, I’d recommend taking a look at their points. They fluff some elements that require more rigorous thinking, but it is correct in its essentials.

Photo by Delano, Jack. Young worker at C&NW railroad, 40th Street shops. Chicago, IL, 1942. (LoC)

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 1

  1. Just started reading Neff & Citrin’s book (the Kindle sample)–pretty interesting, so far. I immediately wondered how they would analyze the latest high-viz CEO flame-out–Leo Apotheker (Hewlett-Packard)–with respect to how he handled his first 100 days. I suspect that would make for a fascinating read.

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