What we have is a Failure to Communicate


I don’t know if you ‘ve been following the technology trends of the past year or so, but a few disparate headlines keep surfacing and are not easily dismissed:

  • The Percentage of Females entering Computer Science and Engineering Falls to an All Time Low (mainstream newspapers)
  • Is there a link between Asperger’s Syndrome and Social Skills in IT (SEPG conference presentation)
  • Communication is the Bigger Part of Project Management (frequent presentations on soft skills at PM conferences)
  • Innovation and Communication are two of the Areas not easily Outsourced (citing Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat”)
  • Barely 1/3 of IT Projects are Successful (Annual CHAOS reports by the Standish group)

Taken individually these topics seem harmless enough, but as I speak internationally on the topics of IT measurement, global software development (and the accompanying cultural issues), and the future of project management and quality in IT, I am struck by the common chord that permeates all of these headlines: we in computer science and engineering are stereotypically lacking in social and communication skills.

I can hear it now, anyone who’s been in software and systems development for more than six months is saying, “No ****! Say something we don’t already know!” I know from personal experience that few students enter engineering or computer science to gain people skills!

Recent research illuminates that computer science related professions – and in particular IT development – are so devoid of gratitude and basic human appreciation that women in particular find the environment uninhabitable over the long term. Gosh, it sounds like Mars – and in many ways, in many organizations, an IT career in software development is often like life on Mars may turn out to be. I do realize that there ARE places that are on the top 100 list of companies to work for in IT – and I applaud those companies who nurture their employees, take a solid interest in making sure that their technical experts don’t burn out, have ample opportunities, and a lifelong career. But, this is not the norm – at least not amongst the worldwide cadre of corporations represented at software and systems engineering conferences at which I speak. When I routinely ask “How quickly do you find out when you’ve done something wrong at work?” the answer is solidly quantified by minutes. However, when I ask the same question about doing the right things or going the extra mile – the answer is met with puzzled reactions that range from “NEVER!” to “if we’re lucky, maybe after a few months”.

What’s wrong with this picture???? We’re the same human beings that interface with parents and kids at soccer games, go out socially with friends, run governments, manage companies, you name it – the professionals involved in IT have the same lives as non-IT’ers – the need for friends, socialization, families, contact, movies, money, you name it – yet when we cross the threshold of our offices, it all goes out the window. (Yes, there ARE other professions that do this as well, but I’m talking about IT right now…)

One presentation of note at an SEPG (software engineering process group) conference of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) in the US a few years back, conjectured that perhaps the dysfunctional communication and appreciation in the IT field could be attributed to “Asperger’s Syndrome” a form of early onset autism (for which the syndrome and accompanying diagnosis was not identified until 1972) – in which its sufferers lack the emotional empathy for others. In the presentation, the speakers were careful to caution audience members from labeling their co-workers who lack social skills as being autistic. But, it raised an interesting point – the room was filled to capacity and everyone seemed to be taking notes that they mentally could attribute co-workers to. I’ve never attended any other conference where professionals were eager to pin a lack of social skills of co-workers so readily on a medical condition. (A sidenote of interest was the research that showed a marked increase in the occurrence of early onset autism in Silicon Valley families where both parents worked in IT ).

Putting the SEPG presentation aside, still leaves the fact that soft skills are typically learned by osmosis or treated as “fluff” in IT (and engineering) despite the huge cost to our industry. During my engineering education, it was commonplace for colleagues to question why anyone would befriend non-engineers or attend non-engineering functions (which I did as a matter of course) – thinking that everyone else was either inferior (as if everyone in the world aspired to be an engineer!) or boring. Computer science wasn’t much better and the cirriculums were often devoid of communication courses. Yet, in IT those very skills are the most needed and missing. Software development is a human endeavor for the most part.

What can we do about changing our world? Say a kind word, thank someone who goes the extra mile – and make it a conscious effort until it becomes a habit. As Clint Eastwood said “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

I am of the firm belief that if we put people first and technology second in our IT initiatives, and we concentrate on truly listening and learning about each other from a human perspective, our IT programs will succeed more often. And isn’t process improvement and success what we need more of today – AND appreciation of the same?

Happy weekend!

Carol

http://www.caroldekkers.com/

http://www.qualityplustech.com/

———–COPYRIGHT 2008 Carol Dekkers ALL RIGHTS RESERVED————————

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