One of the common urban myths about software developers and engineers is that they are poor communicators. While there are of course Aspergers types in tech, and some developers that just like to keep their heads down, just as there are in the broader population… spend ten minutes on the web and you can see a rich, nuanced, world of amazingly effective communication and collaboration by developers.
Web companies and startups make a virtue of having smaller teams with fewer marketing resources than larger, more traditional firms – and the technical staff often get involved in policy, communications and so on. As we move from traditional outbound marketing and PR approaches to more conversational styles of engagement with customers engineers can really come into their own. Blogs can be written in English rather than corporate comms.
I am very aware that I am not saying anything new. I could breathlessly tell you to Read The Cluetrain Manifesto. I might point you to Gapingvoid’s seminal Porous Membrane essay. I might tell you to the read up on E2.0 or Social Business.
The bottom line is that the key to successful modern comms is to trust your employees to represent the company: chances are they have your best interests at heart, know the products they work on, and won’t do anything to hurt the company when engaging with outsiders.
Now to change gear a little – I want to call out the example that set off this train of thought this morning. I got an email this morning from expensify– which is a great little app for filing expenses. It makes one of the most sucky parts of business life – filing expenses – bearable – in other words it is magic. So to the email this morning… it had the subject heading:
A Brief Expensify Update, From An Engineer
My name is Ayumi Yu and I’m a software engineer working at Expensify. I’ve recently been invited to reach out to our users to dicuss our newest, most useful features from an engineer’s perspective. I want to use this opportunity to share some news, tips and insight into what I love about the product I work on.
In terms of news, last month we debuted receipt OCR and automated expense reporting at Finovate 2011 (http://youtu.be/Yrg3ww0xc40). I love this feature and it’s my number one handy Expensify feature! Many of our users have written and tweeted and blogged that they really like it, and that makes us very happy. Very recently, we added an exciting sister feature:
Business Card OCR — It’s great to meet new contacts and exchange business cards, but transcribing their info is time-consuming. To address this problem, we took our new scanning engine and tweaked it a bit to process business cards. When you upload and scan any image whether from mobile, website, or emailed to [email protected], we’ll automatically detect if it’s a business card or receipt and when appropriate, we will scan the contact information. The business card along with their Name, Phone, and Email are saved in a “Contacts Book” located in Settings -> Business Cards. You can export your contacts to a CSV file anytime which you can in turn import into your favorite email program.
Automatic Expense Reports — This is another feature that I really like. I always go to Peet’s Coffee, generating several expenses in a week, but for me these will all be automatically added to my bi-monthly report. I just have to log in and submit it! How this works is part of our “Expense Rules” which will organize expenses based on criteria you set. In my case, my Settings -> Preferences includes a rule to match “Peet’s” Expenses and then tag as “Ayumi” and send them to an expense report. Combined with receipt scanning, the time I spend on expense reporting has been rapidly dropping.
Besides awesome new features, we place a great emphasis on optimizing existing features. We tweaked the interface to add touches of color and increase performance. We’ve also been rapidly developing the iPhone and Android app especially and I’d really encourage you to check them out.
Let me conclude by thanking you for being an Expensify user! Each of us really cares about the individual expense reporter because we do expense reports just like you do; and when we say “Expense Reports that Don’t Suck” we mean it. If you haven’t logged in for a while, consider signing in again to see how we’re doing. We’d certainly like to hear from you how it’s going, so please feel free to send any feedback to [email protected] We will try our best to reply within 24 hours.
Have an fantastic day, and Happy expensing!
Another example of this trend in action comes from my friends at alphagov.
“Alpha.gov.uk is an experimental prototype of a single UK Government website. It aims to be as simple as possible, and to place the needs of citizens first.”
Alphagov was built in 100 days, for £265k pounds. The team used agile software development techniques, with weekly standup meetings, and close knit interactions between team members working on different facets of all the overall design – check out the humans.txt file to see who did what. But what I thought was a masterstroke by team sponsor Tom Loosemore was that the entire team was tasked with communicating the launch. They all had to write blogs, answer questions on GetSatisfaction, answer emails, do press interviews and so on. The whole team. A more traditional approach would be hire a PR company, with all media and other inquries to be directed to Tom himself. But that approach frankly wouldn’t have scaled as well, and wouldn’t have helped encourage the wave of positive feedback on the site after bring mentioned for example on hacker news.
So UK central government is now practicing agile procurement, agile development, and agile comms… well… alpha testing it anyway. That’s pretty mind-blowing actually. Trusting contractors to talk on behalf of the project, to give their unvarnished opinions.
I loved this comment on hacker news:
Holy baloney. I’m just blown away, this is amazing. As a current state employee, I’ve seen the insane bureaucracy we have to battle just to redesign one internal site.
I would love to know how they did this. Are these contractors? Is it a seperate team? Is the redesign rolling out across all government departments? What is their CMS?
Oh man, I need details. If you were involved with this at all, please contact me…
There are many examples of companies enabling their engineers to talk to the market. IBM, after some initial reluctance, is now a huge supporter of the approach. The company was early in realising it could trust its employees to blog and so on, but the engineers are getting ever more involved. Increasingly IBM.com pages will have profiles and contact details of engineers and technical staffers. This page from the POWER team is a great example.
The trend is broad, and in an age where developers are the new kingmakers, it makes sense to get them talking to customers, partners, employees and even competitors. Communications and product management are converging at the smartest companies, as they get more agile about product development. Let your engineers do the talking. Don’t treat them like mushrooms.
I am of course not saying organisations should get rid of PR and traditional comms. Frankly it would be absurd to do so, not least because engineers have other work to be getting on with…. but the real point is that engineers and software developers can, and should be, part of your strategy for market engagement. A little trust goes a long way.
June 10, 2011 at 11:08 am
James – this is a great article. In our “large enterprise” experience, we have found that having locked the developers (and infra ops) teams behind the curtain for so long, we are lacking the exact critical skills to which you allude. This has been especially obvious as we have moved our internal “cloud” strategy through the stages of infrastructure > information – once you get to information, you are dealing with the business (LOB owners) and they require a lot more engagement and explanations in a language they understand. Ideally, that would come from those who are (in our case) responsible for designing the APIs into their data, but to my point, these folks are initially hard to come by….I think you are spot on, yet we have some work to do to find or develop guys like you reference above….
James Governor says:
June 10, 2011 at 11:25 am
brilliant point christian – never mind communicating with the outside world. What about communicating with the lines-of-business! Internal comms should listen to.
hard lines and chinese walls don’t help IT-business alignment.
Sandy Carter says:
June 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm
James: I agree. The Subject Matter experts should be doing this! We did do this very systematically in IBM India with great engagement from the engineers and great results in the marketplace, with IBM’s awareness going up double digits!
This makes sense!
Ben Watson says:
June 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm
Brilliant, as usual. Bring in the experts.
James Governor says:
June 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm
wow sandy thanks for the *data* – that adds a lot to the argument.
ben- as ever. hat/tip
Ian Skerrett says:
June 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm
Reminds me of one of my favourite Kathy Sierra blog posts: You Are a marketer, Deal with it!
Good post James.
James Governor says:
June 14, 2011 at 11:38 pm
Thanks Ian. Kathy is like Tim OReilly. they basically wrote everything smart ten years ago. We just keep recycling it.
What I’ve been reading | DavePress says:
June 12, 2011 at 9:04 am
[…] Towards Effective Corporate Communications: Let Your Engineers do the Talking – For engineers, replace with any front line public sector worker! […]
Links: 6-13-2011 | Aaron Johnson says:
June 14, 2011 at 8:18 am
[…] Towards Effective Corporate Communications: Let Your Engineers do the Talking – James Governor… Quote: "A little trust goes a long way." So true. Also, humans.txt is super cool. (categories: management culture trust communication engineering entrepreneurship ) […]
David Bruce says:
June 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm
James, excellent post – and I’m going to check out expensify.
One of the things you surfaced in explaining the myth of technical staff being poor communicators is that the judging of communication is often done by communications and marketing professionals. Just as engineers may not be the best judges of marketing material, neither are marketers the best judge of engineering material.
In today’s environment, we have to think about the audience in new ways. If I want to reach engineers, then it might be best to have an engineer speak to them. If I’m trying to discuss the value of a logistics system to a warehouse manager, I’m likely to avoid having the accounting department write the copy.
People respond well to others with similar knowledge, language, experience, etc. We need to remember that when building a marketing or comms model and focus on the audience – not our own internal definitions of “best.”
James Governor says:
June 14, 2011 at 11:36 pm
David- thanks. great point about peer to peer experience sharing. but one interesting thing about expensify is that its v much a business app…. not just something tooling oriented
Ayumi Yu says:
August 7, 2011 at 10:45 am
Hey James — awesome article and I’m super glad you enjoyed the email. We’re trying our best to keep it fresh! 🙂