On the importance of communication in the workplace

When I just started learning how to program, I thought programming as a profession was about code, design and algorithms – after all, these are the courses that are taught in university, so this must be the most important skills for a programmer, right?

Wrong.

Over the years, I have discovered that effective communication is at least as important, if not more, than the more technical aspects of a programmer’s work (this might be true for other fields, but I can’t really comment about that).

Interpersonal – Top on this list is “being a good and friendly person”. We spend most of our waking hours at work, and progressively fewer of this time is spent on the computer coding. Therefore, you want the people you work with to be … the sort of people you’d like to spend time with (a little self-defining here, but still). Working with someone who’s rude, inconsiderate, or just plain not nice can make the best workplace in the world into the worst.

Responsibility - people you work with, whether team mates, managers or other colleagues, are all a key instrument to your success at your own tasks. Today’s high tech company is a highly chaotic and fast paced environment, in which you are rarely working on some research project all alone in your basement. More often, you are cooperating with other people to create something larger, starting from product managers, tech leads, QA, managers and support. You depend on them for the successful delivery of your work. There’s nothing more annoying than not being able to finish a feature just because some crucial link in this chain neglected his responsibilities.

Email/Face to Face – At most modern organizations, you send and receive dozens of emails every day. Email is very convenient – you can send it without ever leaving your desktop, it’s saved and archived and you use it to reach several people at once. It is also a trap. Some things are better not handled through email or Skype! I cannot stress this issue enough. Countless time have I seen an important process stuck because it was handled via email, and the sender wrongfully assumed that this was enough to make the recipient take the required actions.

When you have something urgent or important, it’s most effective to accompany or replace the email with a face to face conversation. Sometimes all you need to say is “I’ve sent you an email about yada yada, please see the details there because I need it for this and that”. This helps focus the recipient and ensures he’ll take the necessary actions. Another point worth saying about email, is that you should adjust the form of communication to your recipient. Some people can be counted on to reply to most emails within an hour, and to never skip an important email, while others must be ‘nagged’ to repeatedly. If you use Outlook, you should use its reminder system to make sure the emails that are important to you (both outgoing and incoming) get handled.

Avoid long email threads and large recipient lists at any cost! These can serve as announcements, but as soon as such emails turn to discussions, people just tune out and the thread becomes an exercise in uselessness. Identify these wasted keystrokes and instead solve the issues by talking to the key people. If the other party tries to continue a useless email thread, just reply “I’d rather discuss this face to face, it’ll be shorter” for all of us.

When I was young, nobody told me programming was a “people profession”, but the truth is that it really is. What is your opinion?

2 Comments

  1. Aya:

    I couldn’t agree more. This is true for other fields as well.

  2. Tomer Gabel:

    It depends on who you are, what your preferences are and what you’re working on. Not everyone works on a giant software project, and it’s entirely possible to create impressive software with only 1-2 people who don’t communicate all that well.

    Good communication skills are always nice, but IMO the objective need for good communication skills is a function of team size (the bigger the team, the more crucial good communication is to the success of the project) and scope of responsibility (senior developers have to communicate with other professionals significantly more than junior developers; system architects even more so; managers fundamentally need better communication skills). If you choose to stay in the trenches you can get away with crappy communication skills even in the largest of organizations.

    By the way, quality of communication is orthogonal to friendliness; you can be the biggest asshole in the world and still get your point across, or you can be the friendliest guy in the world and simply fail to be understood.