I have been fortunate enough to work as a software engineer in both Greece and UK. I have also been very fortunate to work in various types of businesses and software projects. From agile projects to strict waterfall, from huge teams (25 or more people) to just 2 or myself only, from low-budget projects to hundreds of millions… and for small financial or retail companies to the largest banks of both countries. I want to take this opportunity and talk from experience about the one factor which is crucial to the project outcome. It should be treated as top priority and without any more words I have to reveal that this is communication. This post therefore is purely about communication and it will deal with communication problems that I faced while living and working in the UK, within English speaking teams.
First of all let me start by saying that what is written in this post doesn’t apply only to IT and software projects only. Furthermore, although the means of communication have been evolving rapidly, bringing us closer and closer, I personally feel that humans are miles apart from communicating well enough and understanding each other. There is no purpose in communicating if there is no willingness and commitment to understanding each other. Having said all that, let me introduce you to the chain:
Communication → Understanding / appreciation → Decision making → Actioning
Breaking each of the chain connections is catastrophic for a project outcome. In the meantime, if you have responsibilities, you have to ensure that the chain is not broken not only between developers but also between developers and managers as well as between managers only.So lets have a look on the key aspects of communication.
Language and pronunciation
The language used is the most important thing. In my opinion, working in the UK gives you the privilege of speaking the perfect English. For those who may not be aware, although the English language is a mixture of previous languages and has a lot borrowed from Greek / Latin, it’s been around and evolving for more than 400 years. It is now the world’s leading language in businesses. Therefore it is only a benefit for someone to learn proper English from the natives.
Nowadays someone may argue that there are so many foreigners in the UK soil who have altered the way English is actually spoken. And this is truly the case in the professional world. UK has been in a central position in the global market for so many years therefore it is impossible to control that. In addition, when you are focusing on the technical job, sometimes (almost always) you forget to learn how to speak properly. And this is exactly what has to change.
One of the problems that I am facing, and I must admit, I am part of at the same time, is that my English is not as good as a native speaker’s and certainly my accent is far from ideal – even after 9 years in the UK. I also had fellow team members that I couldn’t understand though. And they weren’t just non-English speakers. You may find sometimes that even native English speakers have a very thick accent which makes it impossible comprehend.
The solution to this can only come from feedback. I have never been ashamed to ask someone if they can understand me while I’m speaking. Frankly, nobody should be ashamed to do that. And even better if the person you are asking is replying he has trouble understanding you. Because it is only after feedback that you can notice that issue, and become better in speaking and listening. Treat all feedback in the best possible way, thanking those who answer your questions. The objective should always be to speak proper English with as clear accent as possible. That applies to all team members irrespective of their nationality.
This is one of the areas that I simply never paid attention in the past, it plays however a massive role in the way a team behaves and communicates. People in the UK, pay great attention to how you say things. They just love to hide what they really want to say between beautiful words and leave it up to you, to “translate” what they meant. It is only when you get to do the same, that you may get somewhere, especially when talking to managers. Choosing the right words and expressions can achieve miracles.
One other thing about people here is that they are extremely polite. They are raised that way and it is only when you get to be polite with them that will keep you in the white list. Never hesitate to say “Thank you”, “please”, “May I”, “I appreciate this” etc. Never hesitate to hold the door open for someone that is coming or keep the elevator door from closing for others to join. When you address senior staff members, this is very important. I can’t even begin to describe what a great role politeness plays in this country and how it makes people warm up to someone.
Best tip I can give you though, is this: Never interrupt! If you wait for someone to finish and address them afterwards, you almost certainly get qualified as “favorite”. People here hate being interrupted much more than when you insult them!!! (well, almost)At the end of the day, if you adapt to the communication rules your life becomes much easier. If you keep playing your own game you’ll just be another person that nobody in your job will want to talk to. Once you are in the black list, it is very difficult here to change people’s opinions.
Technical vocabulary (Terminology)
I realized very recently that fellow team members use different terms for the same item. This was very frustrating and I sensed that it could lead to huge misunderstandings. I took an action straight away, corrected them and tried to enforce the universal term for that item. Most times, your team will comprise of people with vastly different backgrounds. In the IT industry, even the smallest change of words can mean something completely different. This highlights the importance of knowing and speaking the right terminology.
Within large IT teams not everyone will know every aspect and every term of the work. There are always different roles that not all of them require technical background. Even within technical people there may be a great variety in technical knowledge and sometimes terms are confused. A smaller team may not have that issue as its members should be carefully picked. Note that sometimes it is very difficult to spot this issue unless you are heavily involved in the communications of the team.
There are various ways to solve the problem though. In my opinion its the most experienced people that should decide the terminology and everyone should stick to it. There is also the option of reading about the relevant technology and also attending part time courses. If there’s time for having knowledge transfer sessions between team members then that opportunity should be immediately taken as it would also strengthen the team relationships and at the same time, team member would learn from someone that knows.
The means of communication is last but by no means least. As mentioned earlier in the text, they have evolved rapidly and nowadays you can easily have a geographically distributed team, working on the same project. Communicating with others through the Internet, or the phone however, still has its rules that all team members have to respect. Not everyone likes to type all the time on a chat window for example, and they may choose to do so in their own time. Also, not everyone answers the phone whenever someone rings and that is true for most corporations I’ve worked at. Bear in mind, this is directly related to the culture and how people expect you to behave.
Email, requires a paragraph on its own. I find out that the load of emails for each person is dependent not just on the nature of the job but also on the size of the company. A manager in a bank, would receive about 200 per day, whereas a developer at a small software company would get between 0-10. You could really spend your entire day answering emails if you wish so. However, there should be rules for controlling the flow as well as the importance of emails so that someone can keep control of their inbox and remain focused on the work. One thing I believe is fundamental for maintaining focus, is that email clients / web pages should never be constantly open, displaying email alerts. If your company uses MS Outlook for example, try to get rid of the email alerts altogether but keep the calendar reminders on as you don’t want to be missing any important call, or meeting throughout the day. With webmail clients such as GMail, calendars work separately which is extremely helpful.
How often you should check your chats and emails is a completely different issue. My answer to this is occasionally, which depends on the day-to-day work situations. Some people say once per day, others say 4-5…for me there’s no magic trick.
A couple of tips for handling chat and emails. Be clear what the message is about from the first lines. After you politely greet and apologize for the interruption in a chat window, tell the recipient what you want to talk about. It is important to be clear, and not waste their time. For chat windows in particular, try to type one single message instead of a couple of words, hit ENTER and then another two and so on. For emails, you have to be polite and finish your message in a positive manner.
The purpose of this post is to present communication problems and solutions that may be present in your team. Whether you are someone involved in the decision making or not, you should realize that communication is the first part of a chain that leads to project success. It is the basis of everything. Understand that there is no magic recipe, and try to make the comms as good as possible. From my experience it is the only road to success.