Rice University bioengineering Ph.D. alumnus Jie Chou ’12 said he believes communication is a continuous learning process. As his industry roles evolved to include leadership and product management, he discovered the importance of communicating clearly across teams with different needs and priorities.
“Being able to communicate well is important if you want to influence decisions,” he said. “And if you are a team leader, you will find yourself over communicating to avoid conflicts.”
As a graduate student working with Rice Engineering's Activate Communication Program, Chou coached senior design students as they condensed a semester of work into a final presentation. He enjoyed helping the students identify what was important for their audience to grasp in only a few slides and minutes. During his first job in sales support for healthcare software for pharmaceuticals, Chou leveraged his communication experience to clarify the points most important to each customer.
Tailoring messages from sales to the C-Suite
Chou said, “Working in and with sales and customer support teams is one of the best ways for an engineer to improve their communication skills. Sales is all about clear and concise communication. If you are not clear, you create confusion for the prospective customer and when they are confused, they do not buy.”
“Tailor your message to each audience. C-suite executives need a very high-level pitch with key metrics that are important to their goals. Talking with the people who use the product or software requires you to share a different level of detail. And if you run into nay-sayers, it is important to work with them; you must understand their challenges before you can create the right message for them.”
When Chou joined an early startup, his communication skills ramped up again. He said communicating value is critical, especially if the technology offers fewer options or features than other vendors. He continued reading books and using other resources to improve his communication skills as he transitioned into product engineering.
Communicating as a product engineering manager at data.world
“Our company, data.world, is a data management company with the goal of making data discovery easier for large companies,” Chou said.
Their data catalog products empower clients to find data and reports, understand how data is transformed -- how it flows from storage systems to analysis-ready business metrics, and support business user trust in data through data governance. This knowledge is useful for clients who are increasingly making critical business decisions from data.
“As a product engineering manager, my role focuses on integration: how to connect many different systems, and catalog that information in our platform,” said Chou. “I work closely with talented engineers who build the software that scans systems and loads the information into our platform. I love the interdisciplinary aspects. I get to work with sales, customer success, and engineers focused on every aspect of our solutions, including other product engineering leaders and teams.”
“I love working in the space where we take technical requirements and translate them into low tech or no tech explanations for our users, then gather their feedback and turn it back into technical specifications that our engineers can use. I also get to think about the market and our competition and put on my engineering hat to look at the new systems we want to connect with, but ultimately it all comes back to building software that makes our users happy.”
He is also adept at connecting with data.word’s executive team, where he can transform technical details into nuggets of importance at the 10-50,000-feet level. He said, “Tailoring the message is important at every level. We get a lot of requirements and feedback from our customers and prospects; communication is how we prioritize those requests and influence others to follow the priorities.”
Including each voice at the table
Chou incorporates a variety of communication tools to ensure each voice is heard. He values the data.world commitment to diversity and inclusion, and strives to create discussion and brainstorming environments where no single voice dominates the conversation. He observed that some participants learn by reading, others by doing. Some want to kick off a discussion, others feel more comfortable joining the conversation after a few ideas are on the table.
He said engineers with deep experience may be adept at thinking off the top of their heads, while other contributors need time to digest the topic and approach it from different perspectives before they voice an opinion. This is one of the reasons he often distributes ‘homework’ or pre-reading before meetings.
“Design thinking is another methodology I really like,” said Chou. “We use a prompt to open the general problem space and get everyone talking, broaden the discussion to include solutions, then begin clustering related concepts. This gets everyone putting their ideas out there and fits with a variety of communication styles --which is important in our company’s culture of diversity and inclusion.”
Although Chou credits much of his success to his ability to communicate the right message to the right audience, he said Rice does a very good job of teaching students to stretch their problem-solving abilities. Even if it is difficult at the time to recognize the value in some of the courses, those are often the ones that build a student’s confidence and skill in resolving issues and experimentation.
“Rice really prepares its engineers for whatever is next in their career,” said Chou. “Seek out companies that are mission-driven and are going after challenging problems, and find mentors along the way that will help you grow in your career.”
Developing human capital
“In a global company with many colleagues, you have the chance to really lean in and learn — not just about your own team, but about all the other business units. Try to understand their different roles and what they care about. Take a step back and look at what the overall company values. Most companies have similar business units and functions; knowing how they communicate and work together is valuable no matter where you go.”
Chou also advises alumni in the early years of their career to not focus on the money. Although compensation is important, a better long-term strategy is building human capital: knowledge, skill sets for a particular domain, and being able to problem solve.
“Develop mastery of these three commodities. If you can bring value, that is what will ensure your career success. Human capital is a commodity you can take from one company to another, from one industry to another,” he said.
“Find a mentor, even your immediate manager, who can give you career advice and help you think through where you want to grow your career. And finally, remember to observe how others communicate. Even if you are not on their team, listen and learn how they influence others. Communication may be the most important soft skill you’ll need in your career.”