Great Communication Skills
I want to start out by recognizing that “having great communication skills” is something people typically say about themselves — whether it’s true or not. It’s just like everyone thinks they’re an excellent driver, and we all know that’s not true!
All kidding aside, there are three points I want to make in regard to communication skills:
- Business intelligence demands excellent communication, more so than other areas of technology.
- B.I. developers who communicate well enough for collaboration are hard to find.
- My communication skills are strong, and I will integrate well with the rest of your team.
Starting this article with funny anecdote it light. However, when I point out the communication short-comings of other developers, I risk encouraging divisiveness, and potentially hate. Therefore, I want to clearly say that I respect all of humanity, and I do not put anyone down for being different than me.
B.I. Demands Excellent Communication
Business intelligence solutions actually are communication. Every data visualization intends to tell a story. Doing that effectively requires the skills of an artist because there is much that to be said, yet with a paucity of words. So not only is BI communication itself, but it’s some of the most challenging communication to achieve.
Before a solution reaches the point of visualization(s) on screen, there is consulting process that occurs. That process is one-hundred percent communication. There is a lot to uncover:
- Where is the source data?
- How do you validate any measures that are created?
- Data refresh: what is necessary versus what is acceptable, and how to determine the right fit?
- Will end users need to filter the results; if so, how?
- Prioritization: should this solution be delivered incrementally; if so, how can that be prioritized?
All of this serves as evidence to the first point that I made:
“B.I. demands excellent communication, more than other areas of technology.”
In comparison, application tech support has a simpler communication loop. Likewise, network troubleshooting can happen in the background, even. Neither one of those specialties requires perpetual consulting, designing, and building to the degree that BI does. As you can see, excellent communication is essential to BI.
Good Communicators Are Hard to Find
One of my clients asked me to help them hire a full-time BI developer. As part of that process I placed an ad on Indeed.com because it helps you screen applicants by specific skills included in the job posting. I scheduled interviews with every applicant who was qualified according to the skills screen. We had about 100 applicants, and of those, 25 were qualified, so I conducted phone interviews with all 25 of them.
Each candidate had my respect. Their experience and skills were worthy of praise, but something really stood out, painfully. It was a challenge for me to decipher who was the best candidate because they all struggled to communicate. On more than one occasion, it was necessary to just move past an interview question, dropping it without knowing what they said because I already asked them to repeat their answer multiple times.
I really empathized for the interviewees. As hard as it was for me, I expect it was the same for them. With consideration that a phone interview is biased against people who don’t speak English natively, every interviewee was also asked to complete a two-question simulated consultation via email. They were encouraged to write as much or as little as they deemed necessary, and the subject matter was exactly the kind of work they would do in business intelligence.
Only a couple candidates communicated well enough by even just one method, verbally or email. None of the applicants, however, communicated well both verbally and by email. I was surprised at this, and I suspect it is because the required skills were stringent: SQL data warehousing and SSAS Tabular.
Ingredients of Good Communication
I just shared a story that sets the bar very low, but I don’t want to measure up to that alone. I want to portray excellence. So, what does it mean to have excellent communication skills?
I think it starts with being aware. You know a multitude of details, but you’re careful to pick out the one or two that are the most important at a given time. Then you introduce your topic; back it with details; and wrap it up. If you are requesting follow up, the request should be clear to the recipient/listener. There is a simplified bit of advice that goes like this:
“Tell ’em what you’re going to say. Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you said.”
Here is an example on how I put this into practice. It’s an actual email that I sent and it’s a pretty typical way that I would announce a completed task.
Here are some habits I have that are used in this example:
- It re-iterates the work I was assigned (and by whom/how/when)
- I say clearly it is done.
- I explain what “being done” means in this case (three bullet points)
- I noticed something else, and called attention to that, but I didn’t hold up the task because of it.
- My request for follow up is bold and in red, with the person’s name preceding the request.
- Sample data was is included as a screenshot, highlighting the anomalous data.
That is just a small example. Here are some other good habits that I incorporate:
- Phone calls are returned (as phone calls, not emails).
- Urgent requests are treated with urgency.
- Break up long passages into shorter blurbs.
- Use of bullet lists.
- Avoid use of jargon and buzzwords.
- Emails going to C-level executives start out with a summary before going into any detail.
- I ask questions such as, “What is the priority of this task compared to the other work you have requested recently?
Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I often include screenshots. I use a small application called Snag It to quickly capture them and mark them up with highlighting, text, arrows, etc. Using that app gives me the ability to include images that increase the quality of communication, but without the slow down of extra effort.
Find Out First Hand
There is much I can say about communication, and how essential it is to my work. If you have any questions, I’d love to talk about it. I think you’ll agree that B.I. projects can’t be very successful without clear, effective communication.