This article is for: Technical founders, engineers and software developers at startups who are also performing CEO duties or who want to improve communications with business, sales and non-technical team members. The article delves into different facets of business communication skills for engineers who work at software startups
Written by: Alex Senson, Ashley Burton, Tyler Boulanger
At a startup that focuses on developing innovative software products, there are often two distinct factions in your organization: the business people and the software engineers. Neither side seems to understand what the other is going through and it can often seem like you’re speaking two different languages. For those on the technical side, it is especially frustrating when CEO comes to you saying, “the customer said they would buy it if it just had this new feature.” Or when you’ve struggled to explain to them why the request doesn’t make sense technically or will add unacceptable delays to the timeline.
If you find yourself struggling with these things, this article aims to give you some helpful tips for building your own business communication skills and fostering better cross-functional communication at your business.
The key concepts explored in this article include:
- 10 tips to improve business communication skills for engineers at software startups
- 5 tips to help engineers improve their communication skills during investor or sales pitches
We will illustrate these ideas through case studies of companies and founders who work with the Altitude Accelerator network
10 tips to help engineers improve business communication skills at software startups
Although they may seem like two isolated teams at times, collaboration between sales staff and engineers is integral to developing a product that customers will want to buy. Face it, that’s the main goal everyone wants to achieve. Engineers don’t want to make something that no one uses. Even when the conflicting mentalities of business and design seem to be at odds, everyone needs to work together to figure out what is best for the customer and the company.
It’s important that engineers get customer feedback from the sales people to know what users need from the product. In general, they should be informed of any way a new feature could make the business more successful. But being continuously told by your CEO to “make something that does X and Y, and have it ready next week” is obviously futile; many business people could benefit from learning how to speak the language of developers.
As an engineer, it’s not likely you’ve had formal training in business communication skills either.
These hurdles in communication are annoying because you don’t want to shut down their ideas but you also don’t want to make something poorly based off of broad instructions, or poorly thought out plans. Conflicts can build and things can spiral out of control when these issues aren’t addressed. It’s important that everyone can step back, take a look at the big picture, and realize the organization’s common goal. Here are 10 tips to help you find a common ground with business people.
1. Be patient and explain things simply
Though obviously not to the same extent as an engineer, sales people and business managers do require some technical knowledge to do their job well. As discussed, non-technical sales people can have a tendency to make outlandish requests on behalf of customers, hoping you can whip up a dream solution that solves all of their problems.
Unfortunately, programming software is difficult and the perfect solution is often unachievable. There are trade offs. Expectations need to be clearly defined. Even when a request is simple, it’s difficult to know what to design when the specifications are vague. Knowing how development works makes it much easier for sales reps to make requests that you can work with.
When speaking with customers, sales people should have a background on the technology so they’re able to talk shop with customers without misrepresenting the product. Customers make the original outlandish requests, but business people can keep requests reasonable if they know more about what is possible.
As someone with the required technical knowledge, it is beneficial for everyone involved if you share that knowledge with any sales or business managers who are struggling to grasp technological concepts. Business people don’t want to be out of the know, so make yourself open to answering any questions they have about the technology. When they make broad or unreasonable requests, enlighten them on what the technology’s capabilities are or what specifications need to be included. Inform them of what pieces of information you are missing to be able to deliver what they are asking. Try to communicate in a solution-oriented manner and help them help you make it possible to deliver. You’ll run into trouble if you are perceived as shutting down their ideas or making it seem as if they are impossible. What would need to happen for them to be possible?
Avoid using slang or technical jargon; just know your audience and explain concepts simply. Sometimes the most important aspect of learning to communicate with someone else is helping them learn to communicate with you better.
2. Include business colleagues on your software tools
Though this is most often the case with very small startup teams, any business should find a way to get their software developers and business people collaborating on one platform. Engineers can improve their business communication skills by engaging their colleagues on their collaboration software systems. This helps the business and sales people have a better idea of how busy you are, what you’re currently working on, and what direction the product is going. Staying in the loop is important for sales reps so that they can keep customers in the loop on changes being made at the business.
When both sides are working together on a common platform, it’s much easier to centralize and organize the team’s collective knowledge and tasks. Using a project management platform or Slack channel can be a great way to encourage continuous collaboration. Some common platforms used for communicating with a development team can be found in this article.
3. Meet with customers along side your business colleagues
Sometimes it can be difficult for engineers to trust what sales and business reps are telling them about customer requests. Ideas can get lost in translation like a game of broken telephone and the development team can’t get a precise idea of what the customer wants or why. As long as they have time for it, a useful way to overcome this is by having developers accompany sales reps in customer meetings. This is especially useful during the early stages of customer development, research, and validation.
Though sales skills are important, having technical support present in these conversations can increase the company’s credibility, provide more detailed explanations of the technology, and allow developers to get insights into customer problems “straight from the horse’s mouth.” In this situation, engineers can ask more technical questions to give them a better idea of how customers want things built and why it needs to be that way. Also, a developer may be able to suggest a better way of building a solution to achieve the same overall goal.
Altitude Accelerator Case Study: Rohan Mahimker from Prodigy
Rohan Mahimker is cofounder and co-CEO of Prodigy, an online game that teaches young students curriculum-aligned math skills. The company has always taken on a very customer-centric approach, making student, parent, and teacher feedback a top priority. Because of this, Prodigy looked for the opportunity to work directly in classrooms while beta-testing their game.
Those developing the game were able to watch teachers and students interact with the product and talk to parents about features they wanted. Then, the team could gather together in the evening to discuss what needed to be built next. This led to additional features including reporting that aligns with the Ontario math standards, something the teachers wanted; and the ability to capture monsters as pets, something the students wanted. Along with classroom visits, the team also met with other stakeholders like principles or superintendents. Overall, they found that meeting with as many stakeholders as possible allowed their engineers to stop making uninformed assumptions about their users when designing the product.
4. Learn more about the business and industry
As much as it seems like sales and business reps are always coming to you with questions about the technology, you both possess specialized knowledge that is useful to each other. Beyond what customers are saying they want, you also need to know what software products and features are valued by the business and why. Try learning about some of the business’ key performance indicators (KPIs) and how previous installments of development have affected them in the past. This could give you a much better idea of which features need to be prioritized and where your focus should go. It also may demystify why management is demanding certain things of you, whether it’s seemingly unreasonable deadlines, changes in scope etc. Knowing what metrics drive business decisions will go a long way to help engineers develop their business communication skills.
If you are developing the software without much knowledge of the actual industry that it’s a part of, reach out to those at the company that are experts in the industry. Just knowing what problems are being encountered by those in the same field as your customers or what the trends for products in that field are can a valuable supplement to customer feedback. For example, if you are developing a software platform for local fire departments, reach out to those in the organization with deep roots in firefighting to learn more about competitors and trends, as well as the problems that the software is attempting to address.
5. Make your roadmaps in collaboration with management
Following instructions from someone not involved in development can be impossible sometimes. The deadlines aren’t realistic, the features are too sophisticated, and the team is already overwhelmed. But what’s even worse is being given a vague idea and being told put the plan in place yourself. How are you supposed to know when it should be done or how they want the UX/UI to be designed?
The solution is to make project roadmaps alongside your counterparts in business. By combining your knowledge of technical capabilities with their knowledge of the customer experience, a plan can be put in place that will lead to an effective solution being built in a realistic manner. This does require an extra time commitment from both parties, but is far more likely to produce a plan that works for both parties.
Altitude Accelerator Case Study: Jeff Lande from Lucky VR
Jeff Lande is the founder of Lucky VR, a company that builds online virtual reality casino games. He built the company around three of his passions: poker, technology, and entrepreneurship. As someone non-technical, he works with his developers to pick up new knowledge from them and become technical enough to understand. His developers make sure to keep him in the know throughout the process and help him understand aspects of development he’s not as familiar with. The best way to do this, he says, is to actually sit with them to work through problems.
Together, Lande and his developers use customer feedback to prioritize new features. Then they can work together to develop a roadmap for developing that feature. Their roadmaps can be one, two, six, or even twelve months long. Once features are developed, the team can get feedback on them, adjust the roadmap, and repeat. This is best done when Jeff works together with his development team so they can combine his industry and customer knowledge with their engineering capabilities.
6. Communication skills for engineers: Build trust between yourself and your business colleagues
Some of the issues already mentioned stem from a lack of trust. Engineers may not trust that sales people are passing on customer requests accurately. Sales people may not trust that engineers aren’t just being lazy when they say a feature is impossible or will take a seemingly unreasonable amount of time to make. A lack of trust can lead to blaming each other, souring a relationship, and really hindering any chance of doing what’s best for the business.
If you want to build the best product possible, it’s a team effort. You both have the same goal in mind, so remember that when conspiring about your counterpart having ulterior motives. Being honest and transparent throughout the entire process makes trust much easier; some of the other tips mentioned here, like sharing a project management platform, can be helpful in this regard. This may seem obvious, but always be sure to follow through on your promises and be open about why things don’t work out as planned. Trust is the key to keeping communications frequent yet efficient.
7. Be open minded when learning business communication skills
When a business rep comes at you with an outlandish request, your knee-jerk reaction will be to say, “no, that’s impossible” or “No, I’m too busy for that.” Shutting down a lot of ideas immediately can discourage sales reps from coming to you with more requests in the future. As stated earlier, enlightening them on how to write more effective requests is one way around this. Another is to be open-minded in the way you respond to requests. Tell them exactly what you need and who needs to be involved, in a factual and logical manner, so you are well equipped and able to better meet the requests.
Instead of just rejecting an idea that won’t work, see if you can figure out a way to make it work in some way. You can suggest a change to the timeline, see if the request can be completed in a way the developers are more familiar with, or even examine whether the task can be completed using your already-existing technologies. Rejecting an idea that is clearly impossible is obviously okay, but the general idea is that you should work together to get to the root of the request and find some sort of alternative solution. After all, you want to take advantage of the opportunity presented by getting feedback from customers.
8. Ask a lot of questions
As discussed in our article about speaking the language of developers, asking questions is a great way for non-technical people to constantly stay in the loop during development. For engineers, asking questions is a great way to get more detail on requests or make them work, like mentioned above. You never want to be building something with uncertainty and there is always more to learn about the motivation behind a request before getting started.
How will it be validated? How common is the problem? If the bounce rate is high on a webpage, is it because of an ugly page or not enough relevant information on it? You don’t want to be wasting time and resources moving in the wrong direction during development so clarify whatever uncertainties there are.
9. Have a regular communication system in place
In the world of customer research there is little consistency. You may go a week without meeting a customer and then meet forty the next Monday. Developers can get hit by sudden onslaughts of requests after being left in the dark. This can get especially messy if developers are sharing a communication platform with sales and business reps, with disorganized information leading to mass confusion.
It’s important that a consistent system is established for communication between developers and business people to ensure it remains frequent and organized. This could be a set place to organize and prioritize feature requests, planning a time for weekly check-ins, or whatever works for your team. Being able to know when and where both parties can get the information they need helps them work efficiently and stay on the same page.
10. Establish clear timelines and schedules
Although developers would surely love to be able to engineer every new feature that make the product appealing to every different group of customers, there is only so much time in a day. With time being a major limiting factor in development, ensuring business and sales reps realize how much time is available for a new feature to be developed is key. Having everyone on the same communication platforms plays a large role in maintaining the transparency of each other’s schedules.
Nothing is more frustrating for a sales rep than promising a customer a feature by a set date and not having it complete by then. Although a lot can happen in software development to slow things down, be sure to set a realistic and clear timeline from the start so everyone is on the same page. That includes estimates for technical verification, function implementation, usage manual creation, quality assurance testing, and whatever else is part of the process. Overall, well-established timelines and schedules help avoid surprises when some things can’t be done in the timeliest manner.
Summary: top tips to learn business communication skills for engineers
- Take the time to explain technical concepts to business people so they can make more developer-friendly requests and communicate with customers on a technical level
- Keep sales and business reps in the loop on your communication platforms
- Attend customer meetings to get a more authentic portrayal of their experience
- Be curious about the business and industry motivations behind the product
- Planning project roadmaps alongside business people combines their knowledge of customer problems with your technical knowledge
- Try to make requests work when it seems like they won’t by making suggestions and asking a lot of questions
- Have a regular communication system in place to maintain consistent and organized communications
- Avoid surprises by being transparent about schedules and timelines
Communication skills for engineers: five tips for investor or sales pitches
Though the CEO tends to take the spotlight as the face of a startup, CTOs or technical leads can definitely add value to a presentation if done right. Unfortunately, their role in a pitch can be diminished in fear of messing it up with too much technical talk. It may even be the case that you are the CEO and the technical lead, and that means you’re the only option for giving pitches. Whatever the case, here are five tips for giving a great pitch as a technical leader.
1. Know that technical talk has a place, but not a big one in all situations
During pitches, an investor’s biggest concern is whether the business will make money rather than how the product was made. As such, the technical portion of a pitch is often small and explained in simple terms. Make sure not to let a technical talk drag on for too long, that’s a good way to lose your audience’s attention. It’s critical to convey the uniqueness and competitive advantage of the technology in a way that just about anyone will understand right away. As a technical representative, you’re there for a quick and simple explanation of the company’s technology and to answer any questions the panel has about it.
Find a succinct way to express why you’re sure the technology serves its purpose without getting into the nitty-gritty of it. Though they’ll likely want proof before putting pen to paper, investors will generally trust that your product has been technically validated so you don’t need to spend a chunk of your pitch proving it. Product demos are great if the product or MVP is ready. If you’re doing the pitch alone, be sure to put most of the emphasis on real customer problems, the motivation behind the product, the business model, competition and how you’ve validated your customers.
2. Know your audience
Some investors will have a lot of technical experience while others will have no idea how the technology works even after investing in it. It’s important to know what kind of people you’re pitching to before you head into a meeting. If you’re pitching to someone who works in the same industry as you, it’s fair to get a little more “under the hood” about the product, so long as you keep it short. Those without any experience working with related technologies will require a much simpler explanation; try practicing on someone outside of the field, or even your parents, to see if they can understand the basics in your talk.
To play it safe, always try to stay away from technical jargon or buzzwords that may not be as well-known as you think. Some investors are interested in the patents a business has, which is an area of the discussion where you could get a little more technical. In general, just do research on who you’re pitching to so you can adjust your talk accordingly.
3. Sell yourself
Even if you’re coming at them with the next Facebook, investors won’t want to work with you if they don’t trust you to grow and scale the business. Although your introduction of the team is a small portion of the presentation, it is very important for gaining investors’ trust early on. Don’t be afraid to flaunt your education, certifications, or past success at startups or in a related field. Though you obviously shouldn’t list off your whole resume, investors want to make sure the company’s money-making product is in the right hands with relevant skills. Let your passion show – get excited and sound excited! This is much like selling yourself to a potential cofounder.
Beyond your skills and training, you need to show that your business’ leadership team is capable of working together long-term. Investors want to see chemistry and the makings of a great team. If you’re not presenting alone, make sure everyone has an established role beforehand and will be able to quickly decide who answers which question. The team should have a consistent vision that comes through in their answers; contradicting each other and cutting each other off doesn’t look great. Overall, team members should be familiar with each other’s roles so they can think on their toes and answer questions without constantly deferring to one another.
4. Sell the business
As discussed earlier, an investor’s greatest concern is whether the business will be able to make money. As someone technical, it may seem like this aspect of the talk isn’t your strong suit. However, there are several ways a technical leader can help build confidence in a business. For example, you could talk about the skill and experience of the technical team you’ve built, what MVPs were developed, or what data you collected during validation. Leverage any technical information that illustrates why your business is destined for success. All of these points lead toward answering the question “exactly how does the business make money and grow?”. Cool technology does not sell itself.
This is a tip for any public speaking situation in general, but especially so for a high-pressure presentation like an investor pitch. Practice your part of the presentation as much as possible to ensure you explain concepts clearly every time you present. Technical information is hard to understand already, tripping over your words will only make it worse. Having good slides or visuals to support your talk is essential as well; it’s much easier to explain technical concepts using a picture or diagram than it is with words. A functional demonstration is even more effective at showing people how the product works.
You should have information ready about the technology and how it relates to the business side of things so you can answer questions with versatile insight. It also helps to keep extra slides in the deck after the final slide; it can be very impressive when you have a visual to support your answer to a question. Overall, never take any pitch lightly. There’s always someone else to practice pitching to that could give you new feedback and improve your presentation.
Summary: Communication skills for engineers – investor and sales pitches
- Keep the technical talk brief so the focus remains on the business and you don’t lose the investors’ interest
- Do research ahead of time to know how technical your audience will be and adjust the talk accordingly
- Sell your skills and achievements to show venture is in the right hands
- Illustrate why the business will be a success using technical information, such as data from validation with an MVP
- Practice and have a wealth of information prepared so you can face whatever questions are thrown your way