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Your resume is full of technical qualifications... what about the ability to work with other people?

As well as being technically adept, I believe I am also very good at working with people to get a job done. In every job I have held, I have found that effective communication is the key. (Yeah, OK, maybe that's obvious.) I used to be very surprised (as many other people also seem to be) that there are often so many breakdowns in communication in business settings. Most non-technical problems I have ever heard people complain about at work seem to be based on breakdowns in communication. It seems so easy... all people have to do is talk, right?

Well, no. People have to listen, as well. And I've concluded that even effective talking is very hard to do. It's the fact that it seems so easy that is the source of so much classic on-the-job frustration. Some things that I've discovered:

There can be more serious impediments to communication, such as interpersonal problems (which are also very serious in their own right). I am proud to say that I have worked and lived with a lot of people in the last 18 years, and I have never had a problem getting along with anybody -- except my freshman roommate, in 1988. I've also only gotten angry once that I can even remember (that was at Plug Power, near the tail end of working 275 hours in February alone, when I found out that someone had neglected to tell me that it wasn't necessary). The time before that was in high school, I think. Once since the mid-80s is a pretty good record, wouldn't you say?

Perhaps the most extreme and serious impediment to communication is deception. I am not just talking about outright lying, but also false implication and "convenient omission" of information, which can often be very problematic and are, unfortunately, less socially unacceptable. I consider unfailing honesty, in all these respects, to be the most important aspect of one's character, and try very hard never to deceive anybody in any way. (Unless I'm playing a board or RP game, of course!) I have caught myself on a couple of occasions in the last decade or two; from these, I conclude that it's much easier to be perfectly honest if you never do anything you are embarrassed about. Hence, I try never to do anything (or to fail to do anything) that I will really regret later. I succeed enough that being completely truthful is generally easy.

Though I am all but immune to the big problems of interpersonal conflict and dishonesty, I fully realize that I could be better at communication in general. Although simply conveying information is relatively easy, I think effective communication is very tough. It is also critically important. Hence, I pay serious attention to it, and try, among other things, to always consider all the items listed back at the top of this page. (I know, for example, that I am frequently a bit too verbose, especially in writing. I am specifically not trying too hard to counter this here, because I want this "interview" to be natural.) I think that simply paying attention to communication has helped me to be, among other things, an effective technical lead at Plug Power, and also a good teacher at RPI and CTY. As well as being good at emergency project debugging, I think one of my particular strengths while teaching was one-on-one and small-group tutoring. The students even nominated me for the award of best TA in the ECSE department! I didn't win it, but with over 40 TAs in the department, I still feel proud that I was doing a really good job.

Although I think I am generally strong at verbal communication (and especially technical communication), I do have some distinct weaknesses in the communication department, and these mirror my biggest weaknesses in dealing with other people in general. First, I am not as comfortable interacting in large groups as some. I do not freeze up badly, but I do become a bit more self-conscious, and am not nearly as gregarious as I am in a small-group setting. In structured environments, I am OK -- I can do "public speaking" pretty effectively (now that I've had some practice, including the "trial by fire" of giving a forty-five minute presentation to the VP of Research with 10 minutes notice, entirely off the top of my head). Secondly, I am somewhat blind to the emotions of others unless I really pay attention, and I usually don't. Being emotionally neutral makes it so that I get along with almost anybody, but it can lead to problems on occasion. Also, as good as I am at verbal communication, I am absolutely lousy at non-verbal communication. I just don't speak the language at all. To people who do, I sometimes send out signals that are completely different than what I'm actually thinking or feeling, and people that expect me to read their signals are almost always disappointed. (My solution to this is simply to say "Tell me." Once people realize that I never take personal offense at anything, this technique usually works quite well.) Lastly, I'm pretty poor at making small talk. Not only do I frequently have no idea what to talk about, it usually bores me silly, so I'm not much good at listening to it, either. Give me a discussion I can sink my teeth into, and I can talk (or listen) all day (literally)... in casual social settings, however, people do not frequently discuss complex topics in depth.

Fortunately for me, these weaknesses very rarely come into play in the engineering positions that I seek out. When it comes to communication, I'm actually much better at it at work than I am in a "normal" social setting -- in an engineering environment, goal-oriented verbal communication is the most important type. And that, I'm good at.

For more on my ability to work with people, ask me about leadership.