Importance of Communicating Effectively as Engineers
April 12, 2021
tl;dr: communicating effectively broadly and frequently helps you grow as an engineer and we have many tools built to do that!
At Facebook where I work at, strong communication is crucial for a successful career. As engineers, sometimes we get too focused on execution and it's easy to forget about communicating our work broadly. Perhaps some of us are new to a large engineering organization and previously did not have the tools to foster communication nor was it emphasized by the company.
I love to code. Personally, I would love to shut off all communication channels and focus entirely on coding if I could. However, doing that will probably have disastrous effects. Communication is super important and I learnt that the hard way when I first started at Facebook. In my first year at Facebook, I made a few painful mistakes related to communication. I changed the project plans and timeline without informing my tech lead, resulting in my teammate having to cover me at the last minute and do the work I reprioritized without telling anyone. In another instance, I didn't communicate that I was going to do some work that my teammate had planned to do, resulting in wasted efforts. From then on, I made a mental note to myself to communicate broadly and early wherever possible and seek alignment. I'd err on the side of over-communicating rather than under-communicating (though sometimes I still forget).
Why is communication important?
Most engineers in organizations don't work alone. When you work with people, you have to communicate with them — to set expectations, seek feedback, align on decisions, what not. However, given that remote working is the norm for most of us now, we rarely see each other face to face (I haven't met anyone on the team in person since remote work started). In product teams like the ones we have in Commerce Engineering Singapore, we work with a myriad of XFN partners across the globe in different timezones. These factors make it challenging to be in regular touch and makes it even more important to communicate widely. We have to explicitly communicate through stand ups, weekly syncs, retros, Work Chat messages, Workplace posts, etc.
Communicating well frequently and broadly helps you to:
Broaden your impact
If you have built something that's useful for yourself/your team, chances are, they will be useful for others as well, so tell more people about it! My first project at Facebook was to build Sentinel, an internal code attribution tool for the humongous Ads code base with nearing a decade's history. The tool solved the problem of people/bots changing a set of files which they were unfamiliar with and not knowing who the best reviewers for those changes were. Nothing about the tool was specific to Ads. After building an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) version of the tool, we reached out to various tools within Facebook which use their own bespoke code attribution approach and we eventually helped to replace them with Sentinel attribution. We also integrated it with popular tools like our IDE (a FB-specific VS Code), our internal component library, and our internal in-browser code explorer. At the end of that half (2018 H1), Sentinel was used by 2% of all diffs at Facebook, which was a pretty significant number. As of writing, over half a million diffs at Facebook have used Sentinel and I would say a huge part of its success was due to the network effects generated by word-of-mouth advertising by our early adopters, our push to integrate it into popular tools, and links within these tools that Sentinel was powering the attribution.
Takeaway — Make a noise! A good product that many people use has more impact than an excellent product that few people use. Sentinel wasn't perfect at the time of launch but it worked well enough. One of the easiest ways to get people to use your product is to tell people about it! It can't get any easier. Getting some people to use your product early also gives you the chance to iterate on feedback and make it better before you launch it to a wider audience.
Improve your career performance and progression
Communication has a huge impact on one's performance. If you aren't able to effectively update your manager on what you are doing, it is hard for them to help you stay on track to ensure you meet expectations for the half. At Facebook, Communication is explicitly stated as an evaluation axis of our performance review, but realistically, every axis involves communication. We saw how effective communication helps expand one's project impact in the Sentinel example above. Better engineering practices should be communicated to folks who work on the same code base so as to efficiently deliver products of excellent implementation quality. Strong communication also leads to successful conflict resolution, mentorship and recruiting.
Here's a scenario on how communication impacts calibrations - Alice's manager put her up for promotion to Staff Engineer after successfully delivering on an impactful project. However, due to lack of communication and visibility about her project, it's the first time other managers in the room heard about this project and many raised questions regarding it due to their unfamiliarity with it. This made the calibration process much harder than it should have been had Alice communicated about her project broadly earlier on.
Influence is a core skill you need to develop as you grow your career, and communication is at the core of it. Senior folks are leaders and influential and are effective communicators. This is true regardless of IC (individual contributor) track or management track. Senior Engineers are expected to be able to influence the engineering culture in the broader team and possess strong communication skills to be able to explain technical information effectively. Recently I attended a meeting with a very senior Software Engineer and was blown away by how he managed to explain the concept of cookies in such simple terms to the non-technical folks in the meeting and how effective communication helps you to get things done. For those who are interested in embarking on the manager track in future, please also know that most of an engineering manager's job involves communication.
Foster alignment and save effort down the road
At large companies of similar scale as Facebook, it's not uncommon for two teams at Facebook to face the same problem. I'll use Sentinel as an example again. By communicating about the project broadly and early, we reduced the possibility of teams working in silos to solve the same problem and leading to duplicated efforts. By knowing which teams faced similar problems and understanding their unique circumstances, we were able to collaborate on the problem and accounted for the different needs of the various teams, achieving a 1 + 1 = 3 effect.
Facilitate project planning and ensure timelines are met
Imagine this extreme (but still plausible) scenario - Bob and his team have spent a few months working on a huge project which was slated to launch next week. However, the project is only half-completed due to unforeseen technical difficulties and lack of manpower. If Bob had communicated about the difficulties and progress earlier, his manager could have allocated more manpower earlier to help out, and the team would probably be in a better position to meet their deadlines. This scenario is unrealistic at Facebook in the sense that such issues would probably be caught earlier because of weekly syncs and progress update posts. However, it is still possible for smaller projects where there aren't any/many syncs.
Ways to communicate effectively
Hopefully by now you agree with me that communicating effectively broadly and frequently is important! Here are some tips on how to go about doing that:
Leverage Communication Channels
Each company has its own communication channel - Slack, Discord, Google Suite, etc. At Facebook, we use Workplace, which is similar to the core Facebook app, but for your company and every co-worker is a friend. Workplace is literally a communication tool and it is also the easiest way to get the word out about something. Draft a Workplace post/note and post it in the relevant groups. Attach screenshots/videos to better illustrate the point and catch peoples' attention. Add tl;drs at the top of your posts. Structure your posts according to sections for better organization. If you are unsure about what content should go in your post, seek a review from your manager/tech lead, most likely they'll be happy to help.
Write wikis for posterity and so that your work appears in intern search results. Add links to your new wiki in existing relevant wikis. Doing all these improves the discoverability of your work.
Shamelessly reach out to folks
If you know of someone/another team that would benefit from your work or the information, reach out to them and let them know! Even if they don't have an immediate need for your work, they might in future, or can inform others about it. The relationships you build along the way might surprise you.
Thanks to my manager Nishita Agarwal and my teammate, Yao Yang Leow for proofreading and giving feedback on earlier drafts.