By Marlene Orton, The Ottawa Citizen (Reproduced here with permission from The Ottawa Citizen.)

Each year, Stephen de Paul trains
up to 1,000 engineers and other
tech staff how to do their jobs
better. Part of that teaching
involves ‘soft’ skills such as
writing and debating.

Photo: Jean Levac, Ottawa Citizen

When Entrust Technologies was working last year to finish a project with a major U.S. client, Kevin Marshall grew increasingly frustrated with an endless flow of e-mail and document modification.

The project, he felt, could have been completed in less time. The problem, he believed, lay in poor communication skills, inefficient e-mails and too much time taken to deal with documentation that was not crystal-clear the first time around. Marshall sent his staff on a training course to learn how to better write technical information.

“The ability to plan and communicate efficiently and effectively is a lost art,” says Marshall, manager of verification for Entrust. “It is one of those skills that has unfortunately taken a back seat to the latest technical products and programming languages, and yet it is the foundation for all customer interaction, all successful teams and all successful careers.”

The so-called soft skills in technology industries are getting more attention these days with a shift in the economy and a shakedown in the workforce.

“With everyone buckling down and battening down the hatches, a job becomes a matter of productivity and efficiency,” says Marshall, who manages the quality assurance team for Entrust’s technologies. “You can be more productive if you can do the entire job yourself, and that means you can design and develop technology but you can (also) write about it and communicate it.”

The sticking point, however, is that engineers are notoriously weak in dealing with plain English, a trait which has spawned thousands of jokes such as this one: You know you’re an engineer if your idea of good interpersonal communication means getting the decimal point in the right place.

Crucial Communication
Effective communication equals strong leadership, says Paul Walker, a senior vice-president of Conexant Technologies after a 20-year career coaching leaders of Fortune 500 companies. Written communication, talking one-on-one, speaking before a crowd and even giving presentations with good overhead charts all matter.

Walker takes communication skills seriously enough that he flew from Conexant’s headquarters in California to Ottawa earlier this year to address Ottawa university engineering students on the subject.

The Carleton University and University of Ottawa students were at a Hull conference, sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and devoted to soft skills needed in the workplace.

“The whole process of business is taking a notion and turning it into economic reality,” says Walker, whose company has a 7,000-strong workforce. “How you measure the perception of your employers, customers, investors in the stock market — it’s all in the realm of soft skills. It’s all in the realm of thought.”

Being able to communicate those thoughts are crucial, Walker says. At the universities, instructors agree.

“In our faculty, we have been emphasizing the need for these soft skills to our students on a regular basis,” says Tyseer Aboulnasr, U of O’s dean of engineering. “I tell the students that while their grades will get them the first interview, their communication skills and true understanding of the material they learned will get them the first job and will decide whether they keep it or not.”

She is not kidding. When Marshall sifts through a sheaf of resumes, he starts by screening out people who cannot express themselves well.

“Nothing — no products, no technology, no services — ever goes to a customer, at least from what I’ve seen in this industry, without adequate documentation to describe what it does, what the business case is, how the technology is going to work for end users,” Marshall says.

“I’d rather take somebody who is technically strong and may not know everything but who knows how to communicate properly. Then I don’t have to waste my time doing the reviews, getting out the red pen, correcting everything, sending it back with an e-mail to change this and that. I could be doing more productive things.”

The issue of soft skills has not been lost on the Canadian Engineering Education Board — part of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers — which sets the requirements for engineering education guidelines in Canada.

A minimum 12 per cent of the required courses toward an engineering degree must be in humanities courses, which include communications skills and understanding the impact of technology on society, the dean adds. And every engineering program in Canada has a course on technical writing.

Stephen de Paul, a former part-time university teacher, says it’s still tough trying to convince would-be engineers they will spend a large part of their worklife writing.

De Paul, who has a PhD in English literature from the U of O, has turned his skills into a career to teach the tech community about writing and communications. In 1991, he left Northern Telecom to start his own company called WordTask. Previously, he helped organize a documentation writing group at Northern Telecom. Now, every year he trains as many as 1,000 engineers and other staff largely in the tech industry how to do their jobs better.

“They would be writing 30 per cent of the time and it surprises a lot of new employees in this industry. Even though they haven’t had a lot of background in it, they will still have be quite proficient and quite efficient in their writing. They have to be able to do it well and do it quickly.”

Too Much Jargon
The most common errors de Paul sees are long, overly technical e-mail in conversational style rather than in a business style that gets to the point first then builds a case to support the conclusion. As well, too many people rely on grammar-checking tools in software. They don’t understand syntax.

A particularly favoured technical-writing device is stringing nouns together to create impenetrable, incomprehensive jargon: Computer application training manual should be juggled around to computer training application manual.

“The thing is, you can alter the order of the nouns in the string to get a nice, long noun string and it sounds like you are saying something entirely different,” de Paul says. “It’s like a dialect and the more you are in it, the more you begin speaking it.”

“One thing our clients tell us is that writing ability is a very high priority in the high-technology sector, that your inability to communicate in writing can really limit your growth in the organization. Those people are going to have a tough go of it in terms of moving up the ladder.”

Engineering faculties throughout the country are highly aware of the advantages of having communication abilities, says Aboulnasr. Each year, a university sponsors the Ontario Engineering Competition — leading to a national competition — in which students are tested in categories from team design and presentation to explanatory communication of a technology before an audience of non-experts.

As well, the students compete in discussing issues related to technology, such as how it impacts, and is affected by, society. Aboulnasr is especially keen about a test in which teams of students are given a controversial issue to debate in proper parliamentary style.

Talking, debating, arguing your point well — all of these are strategic assets critical in marketing to investors and corporate top dogs.

“Technology is not just that narrow sense of nuts and bolts,” says de Paul. “If you are a designer and need to convince those around you that your approach is a better way of doing it, the strategic and persuasive elements involved with writing well in the workplace are not something that people have necessarily been taught. You can be more salable, especially if you want a vice president to invest in a product.”

Leadership, says Walker, is built by trust, being open and being able to communicate effectively. And in the business environment today, simply inventing a product or technology is no longer enough to guarantee success.

“The high-tech industry has gone through a wonderful 10-year period of growth where you’ve had a tidal wave of demand and what you really needed to do was take action and invent things,” Walker says. “Now that demand has softened in the industry, and the only way to grow your company both from an earnings and revenue point of view is to take market share or stimulate market share, it’s going to take a lot more thoughtful leaders and thoughtful companies to figure out how to do that.

“Teamwork is going to become more important, communicating the market windows is going to be more important and getting people to believe in you as a leader and your vision become more important so you can get to market before your competitors.”