The Hard Part is often Soft Skills
There are many paths to becoming a reliability engineer.
If you are good with statistics, enjoy the detective work of failure analysis, or simply want to create a durable long lasting product, you likely found yourself in a reliability engineering role.
A science or engineering background is a great start. Time spent working with a design or maintenance team certainly help. An advanced degree in reliability engineering is another path.
The element that is often missing as a precursor become starting a career in reliability is excellent soft skills. We know the engineering and science stuff. The formulas, the testing, the data analysis. We can get stuff done in the lab or on the shop floor.
Yet to become an exceptional reliability engineer, or any type of engineer, add the ability to communicate well. Add the ability to get your point across and to wield influence to help others understand and accept your proposals, ideas, and results.
I’ve written about the hard skills side often and mentioned the need to improve your ability to influence. Now I want to focus on improving your ability to communicate (the heart of influence) in this column.
The Difference Between Hard and Soft Skills
We learn skills. Some we are naturally good at performing, others, do not come easy. Yet the set of skills necessary to be a successful reliability engineer involve both hard and soft skills.
Hard skills include the science and engineering topics we learned in college. Solving formulas, conducting experiments, and making data based conclusions are examples of hard skills.
Soft skills by contrast involve our interactions with other people. From how well we interview to our ability to persuade others of a specific course of action. Just the facts and details based on hard skills alone generally is insufficient to get anything done.
Soft skills include the idea of ‘playing well with others’.
A Summary of Necessary Soft Skills
We work in teams to design, build, and sell products and systems. While a brilliant engineer can design and build a product on their own, they still need to communicate with others to sell the product.
More common, our work with a team requires establishing goals, understanding constraints, and agreeing on a course of action. We work with others to solve problems. We engage others to benefit from the mix of hard skills.
The ability to influence is central to reliability engineering. You will rarely be in a position of authority to direct a course of action, and even if in such a position using soft skills make the execution smoother. Often reliability engineers are supporting a team with reliability engineering hard skills.
In order to have effective input suggestions and ideas to the team will require mastery of soft skills. Being able to articulate reliability risks and paths to solutions is more than listing the hard skill based tasks. You will need to education, inform, persuade and influence at every step from setting reliability goals to implementing responses to field failures.
One to one or presenting to a group, you need the ability to explain the problem and recommendations to create a solutions. This may or may not mean using ‘slides’ yet does involve you speaking to one or more people.
Presentations skills include how you use your voice, word choice, pacing, story telling, persuasion, selling, and more.
If your team nods off or drifts away as you present, or if you recommendations are rarely implemented, you need to improve your presentation skills.
From email to technical reports to reliability plans to proposals, we do a lot of writing. Being clear is essential. Providing the main point or request early, think executive summary – increases the chance the someone reading the entire document. Making complete requests improves your chance of the request being implemented.
Simple things like writing in the active tense, editing, or basic spell checking elevates your writing so it becomes effective.
Communication is a two way process. When you’re not talking in a conversation is not the pause you need to ‘reload’, it’s time to actually listen. Listen to understand the message being conveyed.
You can learn to actively listen, thus improving your ability to solve the real problems others share with you, not just the problems you ‘heard’.
Did you know the presenting request someone first presents to you is often not the what they actually need or want from you? Did you know much of the communication we do with each other is transmitted via what we call ‘body language’?
Our ability to engage in one to one and group discussions is one of the most common ways we gather information, explore ideas, priorities problems to solve, and where to have lunch next Thursday.
Some people naturally using discussion to form and explore ideas. Talking helps them think. Other do not, some are thoughtful before speaking, still others attempt to dominate discussions. Having the soft skills to both understand and deal with the many discussion styles while still moving forward with the purpose of the discussion will set you apart from other hard skill heavy engineers.
Getting something done by committee, conducting a meeting to achieve a desired outcome, managing a root causes analysis team are all examples when you will exercise your facilitation skills.
The soft skills build on many of those mentioned above plus the ability to work with individuals and ‘the group’ to achieve objectives. One thing to keep in mind the ‘group’ is an entity that often behaves differently than the individuals involved. Serving the group and the groups purpose, will garner success more often as you work to facilitate a meeting or process.
The mix of hard and soft skills require regular care and feeding. To stay sharp with your engineering skills you need to do the research, attend seminars, and ponder engineering solutions to a problem.
To learn and master soft skills it is the same. You have to extort time and practice to recognizing your current skill levels and which skill sets require improvement.
This article in my way of introducing a new set of articles and content on Accendo Reliability. We will bring more articles by a variety of authors to provide concrete advise, how to’s, and tutorials that you can use immediately to improve your range and expertise concerning soft skills.
Also published on Medium.