Sunday, February 19, 2012

Growing the fan base

Cranky Cal:  “I already solved that problem, but nobody listened to me.”

As I work with engineers that have been at it for a few years, I often hear that kind of statement.  Sometimes it’s of the uglier form:

Angry Al:  “I solved that problem X years ago, but those _____  ______  _____’s wouldn’t listen to me then, so I’m not going to help them now.  That bunch of ______  _______  ______’s can just figure it out for themselves this time!”

Here’s the deal, simply having the answer is no longer good enough in many work environments.  We need to be able to sell our solutions; which ultimately means that we need to sell ourselves.  Let’s take this out of the realm of engineering for a minute and talk about software.  “Apps” are everywhere so let’s ease into this topic by talking about them – instead of ourselves.

Ever since the first cave engineers started writing FORTRAN, software was evaluated based on its ability to function.  This makes sense; we use software to perform some function that we don’t want to take on humanly.  For example, we can use software to compute the first 1,000 prime numbers – a task that we really don’t want to have to perform ourselves.  The software package that can pull this off calculation and provide the results is deemed to be functional

However, in today’s world, a new evaluation criterion is emerging - not just for software but for all products.  It’s called “user experience” and it’s becoming a very important factor.  Check out this Fast Company article.  The catch: the greatness of a software package isn’t just based on its ability to function – it’s also based on “how the user feels”.  

We now face evaluation questions such as: Is the software easy to understand?  Is it “friendly”?  Do I feel good using it or do I get frustrated?  Do I feel like I can master it by just looking at it, or do I need to ask for help?  Or, heaven forbid, do I need to look at a manual or book?

As an engineer, you are being evaluated just like that software package.  People don’t really care if you have all of the answers if you are a pain in the butt to deal with.  This great quote has been credited to several authors, politicians and speakers ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Zig Ziglar to John Maxwell:

People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

So think about this: what kind of experience are you creating for those people that you are supposed to be working with and/or helping? 

Ultimate effectiveness, comes from not only being able to create great things and solve tough problems… it comes from actually having those great things and great solutions put into practice by others.  With that in mind, we need to focus a bit more on how we are selling ourselves.  Yeah that’s right… we engineers need a lesson in sales.

Recently I came across a really great TED talk by Simon Sinek.  If you have a few minutes, take a look at it.  These same principles of leading a great business can also apply to growing a great reputation as an engineer.  Here’s the link:  How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
Now Simon is not an engineer, nor was the talk even about being an engineer, but we can still learn a ton.  (Great engineers can learn from anything and anyone, right?)  Check out a few things about the presentation itself and think about his “user experience” or in this case the “audience experience”:

1. There was no PowerPoint.  Simon actually created the content with; get this… an old school marker and a flipchart.  Pretty retro, eh?  But it kept your attention, didn’t it?  Rockstar Engineers are able to present to an audience in a way that keeps their attention.  Often the act of actually “creating something live” rather than packaging it as slides is the best tool for keeping an audience glued to you.

2. The room, the stage and the acoustics were lousy.  He even dealt with a mic change partway through the talk.  But it didn’t matter.  Simon was passionate about his material.  He seemed glad to be able to share it with the audience and the environment took a back seat.  Rockstar Engineers aren’t afraid to show and share.  In fact, they consider a chance to present as a chance to shine.

3. The message was a simple solution.   There wasn’t a presentation of 12 other things that didn’t work.  The language was understandable - he didn't over use a bunch of big multi-syllable "show off" words.  Rockstar Engineers know their audience and know the importance of speaking in an understandable way... using the language of the audience.

Now let’s switch gears and talk about content of the talk…

The basic message of Simon’s talk is that people will more passionately buy the “why” – far more than they will buy the “what”.   He summarizes it in a great statement:

People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it

I’m going to take some liberties here (hopefully honoring Simon) with this interpretation on a personal level:

Your effectiveness is being based on “who you are”, not just “what you do”.

If you were to draw just two of Simon’s concentric circles and put “Why” in the middle and put “What” on the outside, how would you fill in the details? 
The “why”:
         Why did you become an engineer? 
         Why are you still an engineer? 
The “what”:
         What do you actually do as an engineer? 
         What is your “product”? 
Note: I’m not talking about that widget that you are currently designing and may someday somehow actually end up going down the road in a car.  The real “what” question is based on this:                   
         What is it that people come to me for?

As you consider these questions, you should be formulating a kind of “user experience” in your mind.  Here’s how I answer these questions regarding my career:

First here’s a general summary:  I’m a surface metrologist – I develop surface measurement technologies in terms of hardware, mathematics and software.  (Pretty geeky, eh?)   I initially became an engineer because I enjoyed math and science.  (I was young and didn’t know any better – it sounded like the right thing to do.)  I got into the measurement field and it allowed me to develop as a teacher and a helper.  I get to be the one that goes in and helps people better understand the world that they are working in.  I get to see the “light bulb go on” in people’s minds.  I even get to create tools that keep on helping people even after I’m gone.

Now let’s put it in the “Why/What” context:  My “why” is: I love helping people and I love seeing them respond to my help.  My “what” is: measurement-related consulting and technology.   My “what” is the outward implementation of my “why.” 

Without my “why” it would be hard for me to get up in the morning and go to work.  Without my "why" I could ultimately turn into a cranky Cal or an angry Al.

Here’s the big question – do those around you really get your “why”?  Worse yet, have you ever even considered what your “why” even is?    Knowing and selling your “why” can be an essential part of providing an awesome “user experience” and growing your effectiveness through a great fan base.

Rock on!