I really didn’t understand the value of displaying empathy when I was a young network engineer. I ate technology for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I could break down the technical differences of TCP/IP vs. SPX/IPX (yeah that). However, I really didn’t understand the importance of soft skill when dealing with my peers, management and internal clients. More directly, I struggled with showing empathy. Perception is just as important if not more as technical outcomes to the project. If I could give my younger self career advice I’d say, “Be more personable.”
Being called Nonchalant isn’t a complement
I would carry it as a badge of honor that my mom would call me “nonchalant.” It’s a tool I use(d) to deal with very difficult situations. Friends and family took note that I could handle very stressful situations at a young age without being visibly shaken. This was due to my ability to compartmentalize issues and put the proper emotional focus on the challenge at hand. What I didn’t understand is that this came off as uncaring or “smug.” My mom called it nonchalance and it sounded like an admirable character trait at the time.
Talent is just half the equation
I was a talented engineer and had a good deal of responsibility at the age of 25. But, I had some room for improvement. I’d advise my younger self that this is a great trait if I learn to balance it quickly with a bit of empathy. Many times in my career I’d be in the server room trying to figure out how to get some mission critical application back up and running. Real business was being impacted which had a significant impact on my internal customers. Mentally, I understood the impact. From a practical perspective, my focus was getting the service back up and running. I couldn’t let the stress of the financial loss cloud my technical knowledge.
Communicate early and often
However quickly I got the service back up and running I later felt the impact of my lack of perceived empathy. I could do a stellar job in bringing together some unique and obscure technical solution to solve a problem that might have extended the outage for hours. But, I did a poor job of conveying the level of effort that was involved during the particular crisis. I came across as someone who just didn’t get it.
I’ve learned that stake holders need to understand that I believe the issue is just as important to me as it is to them. It’s very similar to bedside manner. We could have the most prominent medical experts in the field but if we don’t believe they care just as much about our health then we will find someone (maybe with less skill) that displays the correct amount of empathy. So, I’d tell that smug looking skinny kid that just because he has the ability to compartmentalize the problem doesn’t mean he has to look as if he doesn’t care.
This would have led to much greater levels of responsibility and affected my annual reviews in a material way. You know the saying, “It takes 10 years to get 10 years of experience.”