Hey, Can You Do This? Yes, That’s Possible. Please Talk to My Manager.

TL;DR – Communication with stakeholders can be difficult. When asked if you “can” do something, be sure to differentiate between “yes, it’s possible” and “yes, I’ll do that now.”

Early in my career as a software engineer, I learned two critical communication lessons. Back then, I was prone to bouts of hyperbole and would often tell my project manager I’d get that task done in 5 minutes, no problem. 🙄 Very quickly, he held me to that standard, and I acquired a valuable lesson in estimation. I didn’t have a label for it then, but I was beginning to understand the Definition of Done. The second, and larger lesson, was how to communicate with people outside of my team, especially those who controlled the inputs to the team, i.e., stakeholders.

If you are a developer like me, you may like programming because it’s easier to talk to a computer than a human. Communication with a computer is easy. There are well-defined languages and rules, and we even get a compiler to tell us when the communication is incorrect. The best thing about a compiler is that it is clear when it doesn’t understand what we are trying to say. We may even get hints on the specific misunderstanding. We have no such tool for humans.

One common miscommunication I see between engineering teams and their stakeholders is around the question, “Can you do X?”

Most engineers I know are optimistic people and think “Of course I can do that. I only need to do …” If you are asked this question by a Support engineer or Product Manager or the CTO please stop and ask for clarification. especially for priority or urgency. In my experience, many times you are being asked if you can do something right now instead of if you are able to do it. It’s assumed you know how. The strength of the signal is measured by the receiver so if you answer “yes” you may have agreed to reprioritze your work without knowing it.

For a few years now I have been training my teams to answer “Can you do X?” with “Yes, that’s possible. Please talk to my manager to get it on the schedule.” Developers, usually, aren’t accountable for priority and rightly should redirect to the person who is.

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