Foundations for Interpersonal Skills and Engineering

Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Contributed by Zack Williamson

Zack Williamson is an Intern at Deliberate Directions through the WorkU program at Boise State University. He will graduate in December of 2023 with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in applied mathematics.

With years of leadership experience as a lacrosse captain, Zack has always been drawn toward being a leader. He believes that leadership is only as good as the communication that it stands upon.

Zack was born and raised in Western Washington and recently moved to Boise for school. He can often be found in the foothills, mountain biking, snowboarding, and exploring alike.

Many times, engineers or others in technical-like roles may lack communication skills. The absence of these skills may impact not only their work performance but could also come into play at a higher level.

In this article, you’ll meet multiple CEOs, engineering managers, and senior project managers that have vast experience in engineering and operations leadership. Many have shared thoughts on how to effectively communicate within engineering teams for the betterment of not only individual roles but team roles as well.

Inquiries to eight local leaders in the Treasure Valley included these three questions:

What communication attribute do you look for when hiring a project manager or senior engineer in a leadership position?

What is the main concern that arises when miscommunication happens between project managers, engineers, and clients?

What communication do you wish happened between project managers and engineers to lessen the disconnect of information/expectations?

Understanding Full Processes

Michael Scott, Engineering Manager, Vanmark Equipment

Michael Scott is the current engineering manager for Vanmark Equipment in their Boise location. Vanmark specializes in potato processing line equipment. Michael has experience in fields ranging from semiconductors, machinery and food processing.

Michael states a successful engineer in leadership would be:

An individual who understands the customer’s wants and needs and weighs them against that of the in-house capabilities of the company.

An individual who enjoys understanding the full process for a company.

He emphasizes that:

Creation of a process is very important. What I mean by that is, if you create a bulletproof process, assumptions cannot be made. This may be based on something as basic as sign-off tasks, or something more sophisticated as software tools.

Collaboration and Communication

Lynn Hoffman, CEO, Intermountain 3D Inc.

Lynn Hoffman is the current CEO at Intermountain 3D Inc., a 3D design, prototyping, and printing company in Garden City. With over 25 years of technical management and operations experience, she shares insights into new engineers in the workplace and project management.

When poor communication and misguided work brings down a project, negative impacts on the business may occur:

In a few extreme cases, we’ve had to waive the fees for an entire project or give a steep discount.  We always do right by the customers, but sometimes at the expense of the business.

We need engineers who want to collaborate technically and truly appreciate that others with different perspectives will improve their overall results. It’s the difference between engineers who perform tasks versus those who solve problems.

Empathy and Visualization

Michael Witt, PE, COO/Co-Founder, SGW Designworks

Michael Witt is the Co-Founder and COO at SGW Designworks, a new product development company in Garden City. SGW has touched on all sorts of new product development from PCBAs, machine design, product design, contract manufacturing, and much more!

From Michael’s experiences as a project engineer, engineering supervisor, and now COO, he notes:

I think empathy is an important communication attribute and one of our core values here at SGW. We look for folks that are constantly searching to uncover the actual narrative of a situation.

Miscommunication and misalignment steer us to do work that may not add value to the client and/or may not be billable for the company. It can also strain interpersonal and business relationships when we lose time and money directing our efforts down the wrong path.

All too often I see teams using a lot of the same words to describe a concept, idea, or development path and assume complete alignment based on that, only to learn later that they all had different expectations and end states pictured in their minds.

Things like sketches, online images, paper/cardboard cut-outs, 3D models, printed prototypes, etc. can help a lot. Often the quicker and more simplified, the better.

Overcommunication

Steve Robertson, Leadership and Learning Development Leader, Boise Cascade

Having a lengthy career in leadership development and lately joining Boise State University’s MBA program as an Adjunct Instructor of Leadership, Steve Robertson has an enormous background in employee evolution.

When it comes to communication in a leadership position, perhaps the most important attribute is recognizing the importance of communication and a willingness to communicate often, even to the point of over-communicating.

In any work situation, there are two main and equally important objectives. One is the task itself, or the goal to be achieved. The second is the health and well-being of the team and its members. Miscommunication can undermine and harm both objectives. When communication is off, the work itself suffers. But so do relationships, engagement, and commitment to the team and its broader goals.

 The biggest thing I would want to see is the team slowing down at the beginning to ensure everyone who needs to be involved has a complete understanding of what is happening, why it is important, and what their role will be in making it happen. 

Efficiently Receiving Information

Nancy Cyr, Engineering Leader, Idaho Power

With a background in electrical engineering and serving as an engineering leader for nearly the last 7 years. Nancy Cyr of Idaho Power has a tremendous background in project management.

Key takeaways from Nancy’s response include:

Often, discussions about communication focus on how to effectively transmit information; however, in my opinion, the ability to receive information accurately and efficiently is equally important. Another aspect is the ability to understand and explain the big picture. 

The frequency of communication can lead to a disconnect between PMs and engineers. This is particularly challenging when workloads are high.

To reduce the risk of miscommunication, Nancy states:

The project scope and schedule need to be clearly defined and any changes also need to be clearly communicated in a timely manner.

Conveying Bad News and Qualifying Conversations

Aaron Neal, VP of Engineering, Black Sage

Following multiple roles as VP of Engineering across the Treasure Valley, Aaron Neal now resides as the VP of Engineering at Black Sage, a Counter Unmanned Aerial System provider. Their systems include radar detection, video target tracking, and other defense capabilities.

Often, for senior engineers and PMs, Aaron seeks an employee who:

Needs to be able to just convey the truth. Many people want to sugarcoat things or are reluctant to convey “bad” news. That causes issues because now you don’t know something is wrong until it’s too late.

The person needs to be able to read people and understand how to “qualify” communications from different sources. Such as you need to weigh the concerns of your most senior engineers over your junior ones. Or if someone non-technical is freaking out because of project timelines, they need to ignore the emotion and just look at the facts.

Aaron wishes that:

Most project managers were more technical, so they could better understand the challenges engineers face. This would help them better convey the state of things to the customer and help to figure out how to fix timelines when things fall behind.

Transparency and Managing Expectations

Jeremy Lake, Lead Electrical Engineer, Johnson Thermal Systems/Industrial Builders

Filling the shoes of lead electrical engineer for both Johnson Thermal Systems and sister company Industrial Builders, Jeremy Lake isn’t just an excellent engineer, but he’s also seen as a brilliant mentor across both companies.

Jeremy explains how:

Project managers and senior engineers oftentimes are the first line of contact to the customers, and I find it very important that they are forward and factual with their communications.  It is easy for these individuals to become ‘yes’ men that tell both sides (their team and the customer) what they want to hear, especially when pressure is applied.  You want a senior engineer or project manager that will keep expectations in check even when it is not the easiest news to deliver.

To ensure all parties are on track, Jeremy notes:

It is commonplace for project managers and/or engineers to have communications with the customer and not share the results of that communication with their team.  The entire team must have access to design communications that occur with the customer.

Active Listening and Trust

Ted Osterberger, VP Operations, RedBuilt

As the former VP of Engineering and currently the VP of Operations at RedBuilt, and with over 12 years of experience with Weyerhaeuser/Trus Joist, Ted Osterberger is an accomplished engineer and great leader.

Ted emphasizes the importance of truly listening and how:

Active listeners will hear the full story and gain a clear understanding of what our customers need and value.  They will also understand the variables that impact the success and be able to make decisions in the best interest of a successful project.

In addition, Ted also describes that:

Project managers who have earned the trust of their customers will receive more accurate information related to schedules and be able to work on the right project at the right time.  They also ensure that they are speaking to the decision maker and referencing the most current information (drawings).

Conclusion

While many engineering and technical roles may suit their positions well, effective communication allows engineers and engineering teams to thrive. A key role in engineering is found in interpersonal skills; these include, being empathetic, trustful, appreciative, and personable just to name a few.

To excel, an engineer should understand both the capabilities of their team as well as the abilities of sub-contractors, vendors and in-house processes. They should also understand the overview of the key process from start to finish to reduce “black-box” processes, a process that involves inputs and outputs with an unknown internal structure.

While working with others, utilizing visual (2D or 3D) aids may help others with diverse backgrounds understand more intricate proposals and ideas. A successful engineer should also appreciate other perspectives and use others’ expertise to their advantage. Simultaneously, one must listen and receive information effectively.

Truth be told, engineers shouldn’t sugarcoat bad news as bigger problems may arise later. Being transparent while communicating will also increase trust with colleagues, providing better team health. Communicating nearly to the point of overcommunicating ensures all parties are on the same page and sets the foundation for the success of a project.

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