iStock/Andrew Rich

Imagine you’re a business manager without an engineering background. You’re sitting in a room listening to a software engineer give a presentation about his proposal to improve your department’s IT system. But a short while into his presentation, you’re already lost. There are too many technical details, and you can’t keep up. You start to wonder why this engineer is wasting your time—do any of these details even concern you?

So you interrupt: “Before we continue, how does your idea improve our business?”

The engineer explains how the system is going to be better—again using technical terms. He talks about processing speed, accuracy, and modularity. By the end of the presentation, you are not at all convinced.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a non-engineer who’s worked with engineers, it probably does. And if you’re an engineer, you’ve likely experienced the other side of this struggle—you outlined the whole project for your boss, and he didn’t get it. What’s so hard to get?!

I started my career as a software engineer. Now, as a business manager working with engineers, I can relate to both sides of this story. I confess that it wasn’t easy to switch from engineering to business. It required a considerable change of mindset. I constantly had to refrain from getting caught up in the details and focus on communicating in a business way. And I know that I am not alone.

But what, exactly, is so different about the ways engineers (particularly software engineers) and businesspeople communicate?

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Working with Machines vs. Working with People

Fundamentally, engineers and businesspeople work with different things. Engineers deal with machines; businesspeople deal with people. This difference requires engineers and businesspeople to have different skillsets and even attitudes. But day-to-day work in a company requires the people who hold these different skillsets to communicate.

There are two primary viewpoints that differ:

  • Engineers focus on algorithms; businesspeople focus on emotions
  • Engineers focus on the how; businesspeople focus on the why

Algorithms vs. Emotions

The tools of the engineering trade are algorithms and mathematics. Machines cannot think on their own; they rely completely on the instructions that humans give them. Those instructions have to be explicit down to the smallest details.

If you simply ask a robot to move from point A to point B, it will travel in a straight line. That sounds fine . . . until you consider what might be in the way. Lawns? Gardens? Fences? The robot will cut through those and any other obstacles in its way. If you want it to travel along, say, the sidewalk, you need to give it explicit instructions on how to recognize that sidewalk. It needs to know where to turn, what to do when facing obstacles, and so on. If the instructions are correct, the machine will work exactly the way you want it to. Any missing input, however, will result in the wrong output.

The tools of business management, on the other hand, are designed for moving humans, not robots. It’s true that step-by-step manuals have their uses, but at the end of the day, humans like to think for themselves. We want the freedom to make our own decisions.

Here’s another way to think of that: there’s no way you’ll ever have full control over your staff.

But really, you don’t want to. You’ll get much better results if you empower your staff to think of creative solutions to business problems and act independently. As a business manager, your tools to move people are emotions and rhetoric. The key to getting your staff to move in the direction you want is to convince them of your vision. Motivate them.

How vs. Why

Simon Sinek wrote in his bestseller Start with Why that people are more inspired or convinced by why we do things than how we do them. Therefore, because they have to inspire or convince people, businesspeople focus more on the big picture or vision, rather than the details. They need to empathize with the audience.

That means engineering communication and business communication are not only different—they are direct opposites. Engineering is about the details, while business is about the big picture. Engineering is about the how, while business is about the why. Engineering presentation is about being correct, while business presentation is about being persuasive. Moving machines requires hard skills and IQ, while moving people requires soft skills and EQ.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that there are miscommunications between engineers and businesspeople!

Woman stares at a laptop with many complex arrows crisscrossing over her head, showing how engineers think differently
The way engineers think seems overly complicated…to non-engineers. | iStock/ALLVISIONN

Finding Common Ground

Consider again the story of the engineer pitching a new solution to his boss.

The engineer’s focus was on how he would make the system perform better—and the how is in the details. His type of communication would make perfect sense to fellow engineers. But to the business manager, system improvements do not make sense if they don’t contribute to the overall success of the business. His priority is improving the business—the why is in the big picture. But when he asked about the why, his grand visions didn’t resonate with the engineer.

Miscommunications like these cause frustration for both parties. The engineer and business manager likely walked out of the meeting blaming each other. Business managers tend to accuse engineers of failing to understand business issues, while engineers accuse business managers of lacking technical knowledge.

But pointing fingers doesn’t lead anywhere. Reconciling these points of view starts with recognizing the fundamental differences between the two types of communication. After that, both sides need to try to cross the aisle and learn to communicate in a new way.

How Engineers Can Learn to Be Business Minded

Engineers need to understand that business communication is about persuasion. They must identify the priorities of their business audience and think of ways to move them emotionally. They must communicate the why in the simplest manner and in terms of business KPIs.

In the broadest sense, IT systems can support businesses in one of two ways:

  • improve sales
  • reduce costs

So my recommendation to engineers is to associate your system proposals to either (or even both) of these metrics.

First, put yourself in the mindset of your business counterpart. Consider why they would think your proposal is important. After that, you can talk about the inner workings of the system. Whatever you do, don’t jump right into the details! That’s a sure way to lose your non-engineer audience. Instead, show a grand overview of the system and slowly (slowly) narrow down to the details. In this way, your business counterpart will associate where your proposal fits in the context of the overall business.

It takes time to learn this. Engineers tend to overlook the why because engineering is definite and unambiguous—it’s logical. There’s no need to explain why logic works. It just does. That’s exactly why I struggled to answer why questions in my early MBA days. With case studies, professors like to ask, “Do you think the protagonist did the right thing? Why or why not?” But my engineering mind tells me that if the outcome was good, the person obviously did the right thing!

At GLOBIS University, we have courses on critical thinking and business presentation which train students to create convincing arguments and presentations for exactly this purpose.

How Businesspeople Can Learn to Think Like Engineers

Businesspeople need to learn the language of engineers to communicate effectively, especially in this age of digitalization. Businesses will rely more and more on digital technology that only works with correct, explicit instructions. We can’t leave all that to the engineers.

Businesspeople have a responsibility to ensure that systems are designed to benefit the business, but that actually means you sometimes have to think like an engineer. You might just want the bottom line, but you need to get into the details.

I’ve witnessed what happens when business managers fail to review system designs properly and leave everything to the engineering team. The result is something which does not fit the requirements of the business. In my case, we ended up spending loads of money to fix the system.

Businesspeople should learn how to read and understand basic engineering concepts and diagrams such as flowcharts. This helps the business and expands your skill set, but more importantly, you will gain the trust of your engineers if you can speak their language.

At GLOBIS University, we have a course called Technovate Thinking, in which we put MBA students in the shoes of engineers by having them experience basic programming. Unsurprisingly, the more business-minded students find it challenging, but generally eye opening.

The Future of Working in Business and Engineering

In the Technovate era, technology is an increasingly integral part of business—but so are people. Organizations need their engineers and businesspeople to communicate closely with each other. Only when both sides learn to think like each other can they work hand in hand. And only then can we improve our business performance.

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