Ground Control to Major Comms: How to Build Great Communication Between Engineers

Communication might seem straightforward — write things down, ask questions — but it takes a cultural approach to maintain the right habits.

Written by Anderson Chen
Published on Jun. 06, 2022
Ground Control to Major Comms: How to Build Great Communication Between Engineers
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Almost 200 miles outside of downtown Austin lies the iconic Houston Mission Control Center, NASA’s crown jewel and the primary nerve center for American space missions. In 1969, the historic building oversaw the Apollo 11 moon landing, perhaps the most captivating feat of engineering to date — it required the intellectual culmination of 400,000 people, three daring astronauts and untold hours. Mankind’s giant extraterrestrial leap was the result of herculean communication efforts, with teamwork spanning temporal and geographic barriers during a time when wireless technology was in its infancy. 

For engineers designing the high-flying products at tech startups today, the launches might be more metaphorical, but the takeaways from America’s celestial endeavors remain consistent nevertheless. 

Among developer teams, where technical complexity dominates the job, instructional clarity is the key to success. The adage “There’s no such thing as a stupid question” generally rings true for engineers; it’s better to be repetitive than to be wrong. 

“Being habitually verbose means that you create the opportunity for everyone to be involved,” said Taylor Legg, Hudson River Trading’s system devs lead. 

Not only does an established habit of proper communication help with productivity and reduce errors, it also seeps into the work culture. Leaders that actively encourage a town hall environment can help equalize power dynamics. By asking simple questions, they lead by example of communicative equity. 

Good communication policies also develop side effects of reciprocity. Successful engineering teams that function with minimal friction are often those that relish feedback, through which they can either reform bad habits or maintain positive momentum. The effect of open-door communication cascades down the corporate ladder in ripples of trust and authenticity, allowing even new hires to open up to their direct managers. 

The Apollo 11 landing was a masterclass in crisis control and cross-departmental communication, underscored by transparency of information and leadership engagement. To see how its Texan neighbor is emulating those core principles more than 50 years later, Built In Austin sat down with companies that have transformed their engineering teams into mission control centers that are launching rockets in their own way.

 

Hudson River Trading team members going up a staircase in the office
Hudson River Trading

 

Taylor Legg
Systems Dev - Lead • Hudson River Trading

 

Hudson River Trading is a financial technology company with a focus on algorithmic trading.

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed and encouraged among your team? 

Write everything down. It sounds simple and you may find yourself thinking that you already do this, but I really do mean everything here. Have an impromptu video call to clear up a long-winded chat conversation? Take two minutes to summarize the result of that call in chat where the conversation started. Schedule a meeting to decide on the direction of some new feature? Designate a note taker to record and publish the summary of the meeting on an internal blog. Find yourself discussing big-picture design in a direct message with a senior engineer? Move that conversation to a place where the whole team can see it. My team is distributed across nearly as many time zones, offices, and homes as we have people, and we have learned that this habit is key to making distributed communication work. By committing to the extra effort of transparently documenting all team-relevant conversations, we are committing to a level playing field where everyone understands what’s going on and has the opportunity to ask questions and voice opinions.

 

Why is this an important habit to cultivate, and what effect has it had on the team culture or the way your team works and collaborates?

Writing everything down promotes discoverability of information and fosters inclusiveness. A junior engineer might not participate in a low-level discussion directly, but they can follow along and absorb new information if they can see that chat. Someone in a different time zone who wasn’t available to join a video call might ask a thought-provoking question after reading the notes that changes the direction of a whole project. You might learn that someone on the team already has experience with a new tool that you were discussing at lunch with your boss. The point is that software development is a highly collaborative process, but much of it today is done in small groups or even in isolation, leading to less cohesive teams and products.  

Culturally, this practice has enabled my team to thrive in the world of hybrid work. People are excited to share ideas and updates with each other, and actively seek out new perspectives. Doing this well has also given us access to new talent pools, and has unlocked the hybrid flexibility that enables each individual to be their most productive self.

It might feel like you’re repeating yourself in different places, but know that it’s actually really hard to over-communicate.”

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits among their teams?

Make sure everyone understands the benefits of healthy communication habits. Explain to people why you’re asking them to do this extra work, and make it clear that the effort is something that you and the team are committed to investing time into. Keep coaching. Acknowledge good communication when it happens, and don’t be afraid to step in and nudge when it doesn’t. Put these norms themselves into writing somewhere so that nothing is ambiguous about how your team operates. Solicit feedback, especially from new hires. Simple questions about how in-the-loop people feel can reveal a lot about what can be improved with your team’s communication. Lead by example. It might feel like you’re repeating yourself in different places, but know that it’s actually really hard to over-communicate.

Finally, remind everyone to always assume good intentions when working with someone. At HRT, we’re really lucky to be able to freely have social outings and travel to see each other, so try to lay as much of a foundation as you can with your team. Build trust and help everyone see that you’re all working together to teach computers to do cool things that have never been done before.

 

 

David Peden
VP of Engineering • Skimmer

 

Skimmer is a digital platform for the swimming pool service and repair industry.

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed and encouraged among your team? 

The most important communication habit I look for in leaders is the ability to ask open-ended questions that come from a place of curiosity. If you’re asking binary, yes-or-no questions, you can only learn one tiny factoid at a time. And if you’re not genuinely curious when you’re asking, then you’re just collecting evidence for why you’re right. 

Our jobs as leaders are mostly about making good decisions and then rallying people around those decisions. If we want to make the best possible decisions, and not just the one we can personally think of, then we have to remain curious and open. In practice, that looks like asking a lot of questions that might make us sound uninformed, but the difference between “Do you think we should deploy to production on Thursday?” and “We’re currently planning a deployment on Thursday, and I’m looking to make sure that’s the best window — what do you know about that might make that a challenge?” are worlds apart in the quality of answer you could receive.

 

Why is this an important habit to cultivate, and what effect has it had on the team culture or the way your team works and collaborates?

As leaders, we often forget about the power dynamic in place between us and our team members; no matter our good intentions, it’s always there. And when we approach our team with binary questions, whether we like it or not, the most likely response is for them to assume there’s a right and wrong answer to the question. In turn, that sends them looking for not the best answer, but the answer they think we want to hear. Open-ended, curious questions, though, create a space where they can see that we’re interested in finding what’s true — even if we look a little silly or uninformed along the way. The more we can be vulnerable and curious, the more they can be objective and candid, which means we learn; they feel heard; and we all get to the best possible outcome we can.

There’s always a big blinking neon sign behind you that reads ‘Boss.’” 

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits among their teams?

Modeling healthy communication habits is a tightrope. If you want to have an environment where healthy debate is the norm, and people feel free to challenge assumptions and offer counter-proposals to the status quo — well, ironically, as a manager, you can’t model that directly yourself. Because no matter how hard you try to ignore it, when you’re talking with your teams, there’s always a big blinking neon sign behind you that reads “Boss.” And your team just can’t ignore that sign. So sometimes, the advice to model what you want from your team actually doesn’t work, and in fact backfires. 

But what you can do, as a leader, is create an environment that fosters healthy communication through deliberately creating the instances of engagements where people can see that communication happens successfully peer-to-peer. What that requires from you is to go out of your way to ask open-ended, curious questions of your team members, encourage them to enter into potential conflict and be resolute in ensuring that nobody is allowed to dominate or override the team in a way that stifles input from everyone.

 

 

Malav Parikh
Director, Digital Design • Mythic

 

Mythic is an artificial intelligence company with a focus on hardware deployment.  

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed and encouraged among your team? 

Being authentic and approachable is a key element in creating a thriving engineering team. At a company of our size, priorities change quickly, so it’s important to keep the team informed about the reasons behind the changes and how the new plans tie into company-level goals. I have found that sharing this information openly and honestly keeps the team energized, focused and perhaps most importantly, allows the team members to share their own ideas to achieve the same goals faster. 

We recently completed a project that went from an idea to full-on execution in a matter of days. Unsurprisingly, this required steering several team members away from their current workload. The timeline for the new project was even tighter than what it might be under normal circumstances. Therefore, we had a series of discussions with the affected team members about why we’re changing course, why it must be done now and how they can help. We asked about their thoughts on the missing pieces that might create unwanted surprises down the road and how to potentially mitigate them. After these conversations, the team came away knowing their priorities and responsibilities clearly.

 

Why is this an important habit to cultivate, and what effect has it had on the team culture or the way your team works and collaborates?

I find that being authentic and approachable is a great way to build trust with the team members. During periods of stress, especially around project deadlines, having trust in your manager to be open to input, suggestions and concerns gives the team members a release valve without needing to internalize all of it themselves. Since change is a constant in startup life, we must equip ourselves and the team with the ability to handle that change, and having trust in your teammates and management goes a long way towards making that a reality.

I find that being authentic and approachable is a great way to build trust with the team members.”

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits among their teams?

Lead by example and show the team that you try your best to follow the same practices you hope to see from them. If you are authentic, accountable and genuinely care about what the team has to say, then you’ll find it much easier to establish that style among the team members as well. 

At the end of the day, we all have a common set of goals, so even if there are differences in opinions about how to get there, we must still choose a single path. While we may not all agree on that one chosen path, doing our best to explain why it’s the best approach today, and incorporating feedback from the team when there is a better option, allows us to complete work most efficiently. It also sets the team up for success in the future when there will inevitably be another unexpected change in course. When that happens, we will be ready to repeat the same cycle.

 

 

Planoly team photo in front of a pink wall with the company logo on it
Planoly

 

Michael Rincones
Engineering Manager- Web

 

Planoly is a social media planner with a focus on visual design. 

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed and encouraged among your team? 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask questions right from the start. One of the things I have established during my time as a manager is encouraging my team members to make sure they ask all the questions in the world right from the beginning of a task or whatever it is they are working on. I see to it that this process is in place for every sprint planning, grooming and kickoff meeting so that they feel comfortable in what they are tasked with getting done. The other side to the asking of questions is making sure my team leads buy into the process as well, and are receptive to the culture of asking questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask questions right from the start.”

 

Why is this an important habit to cultivate, and what effect has it had on the team culture or the way your team works and collaborates?

My team leads and I understand that not every developer coming through the door will know everything there is to know about software development. Some of them require coaching to get to that next level and the investment is worth the time and effort. With my team leads being receptive to this process we have had smoother sprint cycles; other team members do not hesitate to reach out whenever they have a problem they are blocked by or if the requirements are not clear before beginning a task. The flip side of this is not asking any questions until the work is due and then rushing at the last minute to try and get it done. 

You may also find possible deficiencies in developer documentation or resources that make it harder for a team to get their work done. For example, we implemented Docker solely because our developer experience for getting the environment up and running was a pain. Now it’s a matter of installing Docker, running a few scripts and then you’re done. A process that took days now takes minutes, and it was the result of having an environment where asking questions was welcomed.

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits among their teams?

Be open to an environment where it’s okay to ask questions and ask a lot of them. When enough questions are asked about a specific thing you will notice patterns that you may be able to develop processes to mitigate.

 

 

Engagency team video call
ENGAGENCY

 

Kelly Rusk
VP of Technology • ENGAGENCY

 

Engagency is a web development company that offers enterprise software. 

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed and encouraged among your team? 

Establishing a regular cadence of communication while empowering everyone to collaborate. We have four pillars on our team: Overcommunication, overtraining, subordinate leadership and the ability to flip the switch on, then back off. These pillars create an atmosphere of open communication, ownership and constructive dialogue between all team members. For example, with our regular developer team meetings and one-on-ones, we are able to work towards, and gain consensus, on our DevOps practices, while ensuring stewardship across the team so that our DevOps is sustainable, governable and cutting edge.

 

Why is this an important habit to cultivate, and what effect has it had on the team culture or the way your team works and collaborates?

Trust. If you don’t have trust, you don’t have a team. This is where servant leadership plays a huge role. As a leader, you are here to serve others and doing so elevates others to maximize their potential. The effect of serving others is contagious, as team members serve each other, trust each other and build meaningful relationships that you can’t find when you are treated like just a number.

If you don’t have trust, you don’t have a team.”

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits among their teams?

Empower others. The success of any team does not come from the team leader but everyone working together. Your role is to create the structure, encourage collaboration and identify the lieutenants who will assist you in ensuring the culture of communication and ownership is grown and preserved.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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