Engineers and managers answering questions

I was at a meeting today, with a mixed group of engineers and managers, trying to work out when thing X would be complete. So the questions were of the form “is feature Y production quality on branch Z?”. Sometimes the engineers got to answer the question, sometimes management. The engineers response was “yes” or, when appropriate “no”; or sometimes rather more nuanced when the feature’s status required it.

The managers response when asked a question whose answer amounted to “no” was a long sequence of words that generally appeared to be intended as an excuse for “no”. But since it took the “no” for granted, it never actually answered the question that was asked. It was like being in a meeting with the stereotype of a Polite Japanese, who stereotypically will never say no. This wasn’t a meeting with higher-layer management present, so no-one was obliged to defend themselves; yet the auto-response kicked in.

It wasn’t just the “no” answers that were difficult for the managers, though. Even answers that boiled down to “yes” were several sentences long and often hard to parse. With my Dilbert hat on, it was like the managers just couldn’t let go of their meeting, and were determined to prolong it by giving pointlessly prolix answers. Also, if someone is answering a question whose answer is intended to be “yes” with a string of sentences, the natural assumption is that what they’ve actually said is “yes, but” or, and quite often this is the case, they’ve actually answered a different question.

Possibly it works the other way round too, though: the manager, having just asked me “is feature X finished yet?”, is annoyed to receive the plain answer “no”, and is thinking to himself “Sheesh! I just asked politely why the thing is late and when it will be finished, and all I get is a rude no. Talking to these guys is like getting blood out of a stone.”

7 thoughts on “Engineers and managers answering questions”

  1. Sounds familiar. As a former English teacher working in an engineering company I got used to the notion that for engineers, things are often very black and white, and the choice of language in framing issues was problem-solution oriented (‘Is it broke? Can we fix it?, etc).
    Doing the soft part (client relations) I had to switch styles according to who I was talking to. In general, dealing with engineers is somewhat simpler.

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  2. In my later years at the office, I was often introduced to youngsters as someone they could go to for encouragement.

    Usually after the first couple of weeks, when they began to realize they’d been given way more to do than they either understood or even had time to learn.

    I’d take them aside and tell them the key to surviving the place was tongue exercises.

    Place the tip of the tongue against the gums right behind the front teeth, hum, and exhale. Makes a “N” sound.

    Told’em, okay, for the next week, when someone gives you yet another task, make sure to make that sound, before you take the pile.

    “N” …

    They’d come back in a week feeling worse, of course.

    And I’d grin and tell them, now, for the rest of the tongue exercise. Make that “N” sound — and then flip the end of your tongue down against the bottom teeth: “NnnOh”

    And do that from now on, until you’re caught up.

    A few of them believed me, and thrived, as the bosses only respected the kids who were smart enough to turn away work they couldn’t actually do well on time.

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  3. This seems a bizzare way to communcate status information, at least in group small enough to gace face to face meetings.
    At MIPS, i git a war room bult that had floor to ceiling white boards on 4 sides, of which 2 had timelines and status of feaures, releases, etc that got updated when things happened.
    That meant meetings were not consumed by verbsl status reporting, but problem solving, decisions on changes to official target dates etc.

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  4. I would guess that this reflects a culture, or lack of, at management level.

    I fondly remember a meeting of a “tiger team” (yes I know) run by a director where a senior manager had to be told 3 times that the acceptable answers were yes, no, don’t know (and I will find out by).

    Apart from the public embarassment – that did rather set the culture for a while.

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  5. I find this blog quite amusing, the managers remind me of the political leaders of South Africa answering straight forward questions in the most misleading fashion.

    I think both parties portrayed in this blog could learn from one another, the managers could learn to answer simple questions in a more understandable manner and therefore avoid miscommunication. The engineers could learn to elaborate on their straight forward answers as their short and sweet answer might lead to further questions that would be asked, thus elaborating on ‘yes or ‘no’ would be killing two birds with one stone.

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