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Treat Engineers Like Artists


Skot Carruth

February 19, 2018

When you hear the word “engineer,” what do you picture? A technically brilliant but uncreative desk jockey? Unfortunately, software engineers are often stereotyped into this box. It couldn’t be more untrue, and if you subscribe to this view, you’re not getting the most out of your teammates.

In a 2016 talk, Guy Kawasaki, shared 10 lessons he learned from Steve Jobs. Number 7 is my favorite: “Engineers are artists.”

As an innovation design firm, we expect everyone on our team to be creative. It’s not just about dreaming up novel concepts or creating beautiful artwork; when you’re faced with a seemingly intractable problem, a creative mindset is what it takes to find a solution.

Our team found itself facing a difficult technical problem recently when we were helping a client address a perennial customer pain point.

After several weeks of experimenting with new technology, it didn’t seem to be ready for primetime. But thanks to some creative engineering, we dug up a solution to something the client was ready to write off as unsolvable.

Engineers Steer the Ship

What was the cruise company’s “unsolvable” challenge? Improving the tedious, exasperating process of embarkation. Instead of immediately setting sail, guests wait in long lines to climb aboard.

So we began work on an intriguing solution: Why not use facial recognition software to speed up the process? Cruisers could opt-in to the program and allow a computer to quickly move them through embarkation.

The hitch was that the system had to be 100-percent foolproof. Even if it’s just one in ten thousand passengers, you can’t strand someone on an island and cruise away. Because we couldn’t prove perfect accuracy, the cruise line considered scrapping the project.

To gather our wits, we called a team meeting. Because we’d taught them to think critically, our developers had the creative confidence to say, “Give us a chance. We’ll find a way to make this work.”

Within a few weeks, we’d built a prototype solid enough to unveil at a special media event. Without fail, as each VIP entered the ship, the computer greeted them by name, delighting the media guests. Sure enough, our design-minded engineers had done it.

Engineers as Designers

Too often, engineers are viewed as technicians, not creators. They receive designs and implement them, as though they’re part of an assembly line. Inadvertently, they’re taught that their piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture, is what matters.

In case the problem with that isn’t clear, I’ll explain. Imagine being told to go buy two pounds of green grapes. If you were an engineer at a typical corporation, you’d complete the task without thought as to how those grapes were being utilized later.

But think how much better your selection would be if you knew that the grapes would be the centerpiece for a fruit tray; in that case, you’d pick beautiful-looking varieties. On the other hand, if you realized the grapes were going directly into a juicer, you’d be less picky about appearance and choosier about moisture content.

When you have zero idea why you’re doing something, context and decision making don’t matter; output does. That’s the issue: Without an understanding of why they’re doing something, engineers can waste a lot of time building something and then having to revise it because the original requirements were not valid.

Wrapped into this is an accountability gap. If a designer’s design was flawed, the engineer can say, “I didn’t fail. The specifications failed.” An engineer so far removed from the value of what she’s doing loses touch with the human parts of the product.

Coaxing Out Creativity

Engineers are rightly valued for their technical skills. But that shouldn’t exempt them from design thinking. So before so much as sending your engineers on a grape run, help them see their own creative potential with some process changes:

1. Involve engineers in user research.

Nothing can replace firsthand user insights. Not only does it help engineers internalize the user’s needs, but their input into research planning, interviews, and synthesis is invaluable. By better understanding users’ needs, engineers will ultimately save themselves time by making smarter decisions and taking appropriate shortcuts.

2. Invite engineers to ideation sessions.

At Philosophie, engineers who aren’t involved in deadline-intense projects are encouraged to participate in creative brainstorming. Developers are just as innovative as designers and other creatives, often contributing amazing ideas that no one else thinks about. That being said, if the engineers are under the gun or stressed about solving a bug, they’re not going to be very effective. So be careful about constantly bringing developers into meetings. Let them pick and choose.

3. Give engineers space to make their own design decisions.

Trust isn’t a strong enough word for how we feel about our engineers. We want them to make sensible decisions as they work because they’re involved in projects from day one. Since we begain giving them more leeway in design decisions, they’ve started abandoning their comfort zones to solve problems creatively and generate new business.

Our only caveat is that engineers who make design decisions must be able to decide very, very quickly whether a new path is worth pursuing. When our developers learned to do that, they began experimenting with all sorts of new technologies instead of sticking with their old favorites.

4. Respect engineers’ time.

Engineers have more detailed and longer tasks than the people working with the pixels (designers) or the individuals concentrating on concepts (product strategists and managers). So while it’s tempting to pull an engineer into anything with a whiff of technical challenge, stop to ask yourself if you truly need their input. One engineer that we brought into a styleguide meeting incredulously asked, “Did you guys really just spend 45 minutes talking about the font?” We all laughed, but it reminded us to respect one another’s work time.

Never assume an old team can’t learn new tricks. Designers can code, strategists can wireframe, and engineers can think creatively. We’re all more than our titles make us out to be.

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