Are Communication Skills Impacting Your Career Progression in Software Engineering?

Recently, while reading Marshall Goldsmith's "What Got You Here Won't Get You There," I found myself reflecting on my journey in Software Engineering. As we progress in our careers, we often need to adapt to new expectations and roles. Yet, one aspect remains constant: communication.
Clear expression of ideas is crucial, regardless of career stage. I learned this lesson firsthand over my 20-year tenure in software engineering. I thought to share a glimpse into my experience.

Growing up in rural Sri Lanka, English wasn't a part of my daily life. When I moved to Colombo for school, I struggled with basic language skills while my peers excelled. Avoiding English classes led to poor grades and a fear of speaking the language.
This fear persisted into my professional life. My first encounter with a foreign client left me terrified. Despite my technical contributions, communication held me back. Even on-site appointments became daunting because of language barriers.
In 2006, joining WSO2 exposed me to a highly opinionated environment within the open-source community. Email became my lifeline, and blogging became a means to share my expertise.
Moreover, WSO2 fostered a culture where expressing strong opinions was encouraged. Individuals were motivated to share their perspectives through blogs and the community website, with monetary rewards offered for technical articles. Inspired by this environment, I began blogging and discovered my knack for simplifying complex concepts into easy-to-follow how-to guides with practical examples. Positive reader feedback motivated me to further develop my writing skills, resulting in the publication of a book in 2012. This journey marked a shift in my comfort with written English and my confidence in expressing opinions.

Transitioning to Amazon in 2014 presented new challenges. The company's emphasis on concise, data-driven communication was a stark contrast. Navigating Amazon's narrative style, which prioritizes working backwards from the customer problem, using active voice, crafting concise summaries, and avoiding ambiguous language, posed a challenge for someone accustomed to expressing strong opinions like myself. Initially overwhelmed, I sought guidance from my managers. After meetings, I often checked in with my managers and mentors to make sure they understood my explanations or answers. Their advice—to focus on conveying ideas rather than flawless grammar in verbal communication—proved invaluable.

At Amazon, I'm surronded by engineers and leaders who are really smart. They process information much faster than I do. This made it hard for me to share useful feedback in meetings, so I mostly stayed quiet. Occasionally, though, I talked to the person who wrote a document to share my thoughts offline. I talked to one of my managers a few years back, about this problem and he suggested something to try out. As ~90% of Amazon meetings start with a document, I should ask for it before the meeting and read it beforehand. I've been following that advice for 5 years now. Even though I'm not the most active person in meetings, I try to give at least one helpful feedback that others haven't thought of. It takes extra time to prepare, but it's worth it. This helped me feel more comfortable in meetings and deal with my communication challenges.
At Amazon, individuals are responsible for their own careers, but managers play a crucial role, especially in producing crisp promotion documents that summarize an engineer's contributions. This is a challenging task, and I've witnessed promotion documents being rejected by senior leaders because managers didn't put enough effort into making them data-driven. Understanding my communication challenges, I begin writing promotion documents at least two months before my manager reviews the first draft. I write a scrappy version for myself first and then revise it in a way so a reader can understand without wasting their valuable time. I've learned a lot about writing these documents when working on successfully promoting 10+ engineers. The promotion documents authored by me were very well received by all leaders that I worked with in the past few years, which shows my communication skills are improving.

Amazon's performance reviews are challenging. You have to summarize what engineers have done, usually in less than 5 minutes. For native English speakers, this might not be difficult, but Amazon wants to be fair by focusing on data rather than how well you talk. That's why I prepare for these reviews all year. I keep track of what my team has done using simple data methods. This way, I have the right info when review time comes around.

Since joining Amazon, my writing style evolved. I've mostly stopped writing opinionated stuff, so my blog isn't as active anymore. Opinionated writing might be fine in certain situations, but I've found it's not helpful in a company like Amazon, where we rely a lot on data. Am I fully comfortable with communication now? Not yet. I'm still learning every day to improve both my spoken and written communication. For example, sharing thoughts spontaneously while on the spot remains a challenge. But being aware of this communication issue gives me chances to get better, and I'm hopeful that it will improve.
In conclusion, I wanted to share my experiences and thoughts in the hope that they might help others like me who struggle due to language barriers. If you've had similar experiences or found ways to overcome these challenges, please share them in the comments.


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