Kate Matsudaira (@katemats), VP of engineering at Decide, will be hosting a session, “Leveling up — Taking your operations and engineering role to the next level,” at Velocity 2012 in June. In the following interview, Matsudaira addresses a few of the issues she will explore in her session, including the changing roles and required skill sets for today’s developers and engineers.
How are operations and engineering jobs changing?
Kate Matsudaira: Technology has been advancing rapidly — it wasn’t more than a decade ago when most software involved shrink-wrapped boxes. Things have evolved, though, and with open source, web, and mobile, the landscape has changed. All of the advances in languages, tools, and computing have created a plethora of options to build and create solutions and products.
In the past, engineering roles were specific, and people tended to specialize in one platform or technology. However, as systems have become more complex, and more organizations adopt virtualization, cloud computing, and software as a service, the line between software engineer, operator, and system administrator has become more blurry. It is no longer sufficient to be an expert in one area. People are expected to continuously grow by keeping up with new technology and offering ideas and leadership outside their own purview. As engineering organizations build systems using more and more third-party frameworks, libraries, and services, it’s increasingly necessary for engineers to evaluate technologies not solely on their own merits, but also as they fit into the existing enterprise ecosystem.
What are the most important soft skills developers and engineers need to cultivate?
Kate Matsudaira: When it comes to our careers as engineers, learning new technologies and solving problems has never been much of a challenge. And I would argue that most of us actually really enjoy it — and that is part of why we are good engineers. So, certainly understanding the tools and possessing the knowledge to do your work is important.
Putting knowledge and learning aside, there are many soft skill areas that can impact an individual’s success and prevent them from realizing their potential. For example, things like communication, influence, attitude, time management, etc., are just the start of a long list of areas to improve.
The specifics may be different for each individual. However, almost everyone — myself included — could stand to improve their communication skills. Whether it is managing up to your boss, getting buy-in from stakeholders, or helping resolve a technical debate with your team members, learning to communicate clearly and effectively can be a challenge for some people.
Communication is the cornerstone of leadership. Learning how to bridge business and technology can help technologists take their careers to the next level. Organizations value people who can clearly explain the trade-offs or return on investment of a feature, or the person who can help their coworkers understand the internal workings of systems. Becoming a better communicator is good career advice for pretty much anyone.
Your Velocity 2012 session description mentions “emotional intelligence.” Why is that important?
Kate Matsudaira: Improving my “emotional intelligence” is something I have had to work on a lot personally to grow in my career. Emotional intelligence is the idea that there is a set of qualities that helps one excel to a higher level than another person with similar cognitive skills (for more on the topic, there is a great article here on what makes a leader).
The definition of emotional intelligence includes a cocktail of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, and social skill — and who wouldn’t want to be better in those areas? But for me, as an introvert who tends to like the company of my computer better than most people, things like social skills and self-awareness weren’t exactly my strengths.
Since emotional intelligence can be learned, one can find ways to improve and be better in these areas. The first step to making progress is to really understand where you need to improve, which can be a challenge if you are lacking in self-awareness. However, making improvements in these areas can help you become more successful without becoming something that you are not (i.e. introverts can realize their potential without becoming extroverts).
What are specific strategies geeks can use to improve communications with non-geeks?
Kate Matsudaira: There are a lot of strategies I have come up with that work well. I tend to think about social situations like pattern recognition, and come up with frameworks and templates to help me muddle through — and sometimes flourish — in situations that are out of my comfort zone.
When it comes to communicating with non-geeky types, here is a good outline to get you started:
- Look at the situation from their point of view. What knowledge do they have? What are the goals or outcomes that matter to them? What are they trying to achieve, and how does your involvement help/hinder their path? Empathy will help you learn to appreciate their work and help them relate to you as a teammate and colleague.
- Get on the same page. Listen to their point of view and make sure you understand it. A great way to do this is to repeat back what they tell you (and not in a patronizing way, but in a constructive way to ensure you heard and understood correctly). What are their objectives? What are their concerns? How do they want you to help?
- Make them feel smart. Non-technical or non-geeky people often complain that they can’t understand developers or engineers, and some technologists like it that way. And while this may make the technologist feel smart, it also creates a barrier. The greatest technologists know how to communicate so that everyone understands. Take the time to explain technical issues at a level they can understand in the context that matters to them (such as business metrics, customer impact, or revenue potential).
- Reassure them. Since they may not know the technology, what they want to know is that you (and your team) have things under control. They want to know the end result and timeline, and most of the time they don’t want to know about the “how.” Keep this in mind and help them achieve peace of mind knowing that you are on top of handling the task at hand.
Of course, each situation is different, but really looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view and helping them is a great way to build relationships and improve communication.
This interview was edited and condensed.