“Techies Need Both Sides of the Brain”

“The right to be consulted is earned and re-earned, by demonstrating the capacity to be helpful.” — G.B. Ranney, Youden Address, “Context of Statistical Practice”, ASQ Statistics Division Newsletter, Vol. 17, №1

“One quality characteristic of statistical services might be whether the plan for a study, or the discussion of findings, or the description of how to use a method is designed to be understood by the user.” — ibid.

(Note: This article is a follow on to my recently published article “”Do Data Science Practitioners get too ‘Scientific’? “)

Many years ago I wrote a mini paper for the American Society for Quality (ASQ) Statistics Division titled “”Left Brained and Right out of Touch”. Though the article exuded a sense of moral superiority (time and experience have knocked much of that out of me), the concepts and conclusions still have relevance.

Those of us in STEM are more comfortable operating from the analytical, left side of the brain. If we pursue technical careers as opposed to management or business we tend to really like math. We like math modeling, the more complex the cooler. In STEM heaven, the streets are paved with equations.

It’s obvious, but I need to say it: our interest isn’t shared by everyone where we work. Business leaders have a financial picture they continuously worry about. Operations leaders have quotas to meet. Sales/Marketing has customers to deal with. Operators want to make the product/provide the service correctly.

Back in the day, one of the pioneers of bringing Quality into the Manufacturing mindset was W. Edwards Demming. He developed a System of Profound Knowledge:

  1. Appreciation for a system
  2. Knowledge about variation
  3. Theory of knowledge
  4. Knowledge of psychology

Most techies are uncomfortable with element 4: psychology. People are unpredictable, unlike things. We entered the hard sciences (mathematics, statistics, physics, etc.) because of their logic, their a priori predictive capability. Many techies undervalue the people sciences which have limited forecasting capability compared to hard sciences (I can predict exactly the boiling point of water on any given day. The boiling point will not change because the water is in a bad mood, changed it’s diet, just finished running, lost it’s job, etc.).

As techies we significantly limit our contribution to the organization when we dismiss human psychology. It doesn’t matter if you’re a brilliant PhD scientist from a renowned institution with cutting edge ideas. Ignoring human psychology negatively affects your contribution to your employer.

How do STEM’ers overcome angst in dealing with humans? Here are some thoughts:

1. Read a different kind of book. Instead of reading only techie writings, how about exploring human behavior? What about a fiction novel? What makes literature great is the core-to-core human conflict, the deep exploration of the psyche. Reading generates knowledge. There’s no way to effectively address human behavior without knowing something about it. Effective implementation of business solutions requires understanding human behavior.

2. Observe. Have you learned to read non verbal communication? Do you look behind the verbal communication to get at the needs and concerns of others? In my past I’ve nonverbally communicated volumes of negativity during meetings. Thankfully I had a manager who pointed out the bad behavior, giving me a chance to address it.

3. Listen to other humans. We have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason. We need to use them in their intended proportions. And remember, listening isn’t silence. Listening requires interaction, with the listener asking clarifying questions and probing for understanding.

4. Take an anti-pride pill. In my many years as an engineer, a common complaint from the nontechnical types is the engineers won’t listen. Why don’t we listen? One root cause is arrogance, a disdain for fellow humans who are too emotional and illogical. This type of arrogance is so common among techies it merits being a scientific discipline (Arroganomics, the study of fat heads).

Finally: a great product/idea is of no value unless it’s used. It won’t be used unless it’s “sold”. And you don’t sell to a human being without having respect and appreciation for the nuances of psychology.

The author worked for 30+ years as an Engineer in various Manufacturing industries, taking early retirement in pursuit of a new career in Data Science.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ryan Monson

Ryan Monson

Engineer who writes on Data Science and social issues