Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Breaking through Three Common Engineering Myths

Breaking through Three Common Engineering Myths

Leia em Português

This item in japanese

Key Takeaways

  • Examine yourself to determine if you believe in any common engineering myths
  • Accepting common myths can hold you back from growing your skills in new ways
  • Be intentional about taking action to progress, especially when it is uncomfortable
  • Always question and adapt your thinking to be in-line with what your goals are
  • Avoid thinking engineers must be a "certain way"

There's an old and destructive engineering joke that goes like this:

"How do you tell the difference between an introverted and an extroverted engineer? The extrovert will look at your shoes rather than their own."

Over time, jokes and stereotypes like these can be damaging because they can limit our belief in what we feel is possible. For example, like many engineers I got into the field because I was naturally good at math and science. I liked "right" answers and found them in these topics. Eventually, I began to hold on to this desire, this love for objectivity so much that I completely avoided subjects and skills that were deemed subjective, creative, or artistic. I almost completely suppressed that side of me. Now I feel like I’m playing catch up, but I’m still able to develop these skills within myself. The good news is that engineers can and do become great teachers, communicators, and leaders. We can break through these stereotypes with a mindset shift that will allow us to grow and develop skills that perhaps we have suppressed.

There are three common myths that often plague engineers that need to be debunked, as they may be holding you back from reaching your full potential, especially if you are a current or aspiring engineering leader. They are:

  1. Engineers don’t have good communication skills
  2. Engineers don’t make "natural" leaders
  3. Engineers are very logical and not creative

Below we will dive into each of these myths and provide some actionable ideas you can implement right away to start making a shift in your own life away from these limiting beliefs.

Myth: Engineers Don’t Have Good Communication Skills

This myth goes with the belief that most engineers are introverts, and the corresponding belief that introverts are bad communicators. The truth is, both introverts and extroverts can be fantastic communicators, as these skills can be learned and developed over time. Some of my favorite people to listen and talk to in the entire world are introverts. Perhaps most famously in recent years, Susan Cain is developing what she calls the "Quiet Revolution" to help the world recognize the power of introverts in such a noisy world. As an introvert, she has overcome massive anxiety around public speaking to become a prolific speaker. In the engineering world, you can look to great leaders like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Wozniak (Apple), and Larry Page (Google).

The natural behavioral types of introvert vs. extrovert have nothing to do with actual ability to communicate, but rather identify how people gain energy from interpersonal interaction (and where they exist on the spectrum). Humans are naturally social beings and we feel purpose as we develop connections with others. Thus, developing an array of communication skills is necessary for everyone to be happy and healthy.

Practice Listening

Developing communication skills is a broad idea that covers a lot of ground. To start, engineers can develop their own communication abilities by really focusing on the skill of listening. An important quote to remember is:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

-Stephen R. Covey

The important thing to practice is truly seeking to understand what others are trying to communicate to us. We can’t be listening only to come up with a response if we want to be effective listeners. Do you see the difference? Underneath the action we take, we must truly care about the other person and what they have to say.  You can often tell if someone doesn’t care about what you have to say, and the same is true as others are talking to you.

Listening Activity: Start up a conversation with a colleague and ask them an open-ended question. The question can be as simple as "How was your weekend?" or "How do you think we can solve this problem?" Then listen to them for two minutes straight without making any verbal response other than simple acknowledgements. Don’t interrupt to ask more questions. Just listen. See what you learn.

Simplify Communication

One common hiccup in engineering communication is explaining detailed, complex ideas in detailed, complex ways. Engineers understand the whole picture and are excited to share what they know. Instead of clarity and collaboration, this can often lead to confusion. Reflect on this quote from Albert Einstein:

If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Especially when communicating with non-technical people and working across teams, get rid of jargon and share ideas using concepts the other person can simply understand. Often this includes using analogies or comparisons that they can relate to.

Technical Communication Activity: Take the six-year-old test. Find a complex idea or concept that you know very well and try and explain it to a child or someone else who would be completely unfamiliar with it. See if they understand and can explain it back to you. Try teaching the same idea to at least three different people and see how you improve.

Myth: Engineers Don’t Make "Natural" Leaders

This myth follows an even more generalized myth that leaders are born, not made. Research on leadership development suggests that this simply is not true, and in fact 70 percent of leadership ability is the result of lessons learned through life experiences.

A foundational concept of leadership development is often referred to as "leadership readiness." It is a belief inside someone that they are truly ready, willing, and able to become a leader. People who believe this about themselves can develop much more quickly, and this isn’t surprising. This idea is very much in-line with other research done by Carol Dweck about having a "growth" mindset versus a "fixed" mindset so that we believe we can continue to develop and change throughout our lives.

Assess Your Strengths

One of the ways to discover that we are capable of leadership is to identify the strengths that we have and find ways to utilize them. There are a lot of free and paid assessments out there, such as CliftonStrengths by Gallup to help you do this, but a very simple approach is to ask people who know you well.

Go ahead – ask the ten people in your life who know you better than anyone else what they think your top three personal strengths are. Likely, you will agree with a lot of what they say. They may also share with you things that you don’t currently believe about yourself, but because others are suggesting it, you may start to believe a little bit more.

Crushing Limiting Belief Activity: This may seem a bit weird, but stay with me. Take about five minutes and jot down a quick list of what you consider to be your weaknesses. Then grab a piece of paper or note card and write down each of those "weaknesses" that you identified that is actually a limiting belief. Take that paper with the list of limiting beliefs and rip it up. Throw it into the air. Make a mess. Show those beliefs you don’t accept them. For example, my weakness might be that I tend to suppress my emotions which can lead to less connection in my relationships. A limiting belief I used to accept was that I was not a good writer. You may or may not agree with that, but at least I am pushing through and practicing my skills! I would write that on a note card and rip it up. I promise, it feels good.

Look Inside

The fact of the matter is that people rarely make huge changes in their lives, but people do change. It happens when we can increase self-awareness and have "ah-ha" moments or epiphanies that help us see ourselves and our situations in a new light. That’s really how we change our mindsets, which then drives our behaviors in new ways.

I’ve seen people who were so bent on blaming others that they became so toxic and were about to be fired. Yet they were able to create just enough space to realize they were part of the problem and began focusing on what they could change, rather than blaming everyone else. It’s transformational.

Mindset Adjustment Activity: Identify the largest work challenge you are facing right now. Write down what you think the root cause of the problem is. Then, write down 2-3 things you can do personally to make things better (this is not about you taking action to fix other people – focus on you). Then, stay focused on your own ability to help the cause rather than what others are/aren’t doing.

Myth: Engineers Are Very Logical and Not Creative

This one seems to make sense – if engineers were creative, wouldn’t they have decided to be artists, writers, or some other "Fine Arts" profession? Wrong! The key word in being creative is right there – to create! Engineers create products, services, and processes that influence people every day. Whether your work goes into consumer applications, devices, or machines, the end product of engineering work is used by other people. If engineers suppressed their creativity, they would miss out on a lot of insights into ways to solve problems than they otherwise would.

Every day, engineers need to find new ways to think outside the box to tackle new challenges. They have the fabulous opportunity and responsibility of imagining ways in which the world could be different and then creating ways to make that happen. That is at the heart of what creativity is all about and it should be inspiring and exciting for engineers. For example, engineering innovations have been a big part of healthcare improvement over the years. From data analysis to efficient software systems, to surgery machines, to providing treatment tracking and recommendations, engineering truly saves lives daily.

Get Curious

When we suppress creativity it’s often because we feel like we already have the right answers or approaches to solve the problems we face. Yet different people and their perspectives can see things in completely different ways. This is good!

One way to start considering creative ideas and not getting set in our ways is to get curious. If someone disagrees with you, get curious about why and how they are feeling about the issue. If someone comes to you with a problem, spend a bit more time asking questions about the issue before you rush into providing a solution. Curiosity can open our minds to new ideas while continuing to embrace the rational thinking that engineers value so much.

Curiosity Activity: Utilize "Yes, and…" The next time you have a brainstorming session with a team, I want you to do everything in your power to promote ideas and open-minded thinking. Eliminate from your vocabulary responses such as "no," "I don’t think that will work," or "yes, but…" When someone suggests an idea, remain open to it by responding with "yes, and [expand upon the idea]." This principle comes from the world of improv comedy and is taught heavily in the world of design thinking, and has the ability to keep teams positive and supportive to promote collaboration.

Embrace Failure and Try Again

The struggle with creation is that we often "fail," and this fear of failure can keep us from exploring different approaches or possibilities. Consider this quote:

Failure is central to engineering. Every single calculation that an engineer makes is a failure calculation.
-Henry Petroski

Instead of being afraid of providing failing solutions and ideas, we should look at each failure as an opportunity to learn something new. It’s a new data point. It’s a new experience. And if we are good learners, we won’t make the same mistake again. Indeed, failing fast is often the best way to succeed if we stick with it and treat each failure as a learning experience.

Overcoming Fear Activity: Create something you´ve always wanted to but which is outside of your comfort zone. Just try it. If it means writing code in a different language, do that. It may mean that you want to create something physical using your hands, such as a drawing, painting, or a small construction project. The point here is to do something that you haven’t done before and to realize that at your core, you truly are a creator. Personally, I have recently started creating videos for my own marketing efforts. I’ve never done that before and it’s very uncomfortable, but I’ve received helpful feedback and learned a lot through the process.

Moving Forward

Myths, stereotypes, and limiting beliefs can be really damaging to our success. It’s important to know that those things don’t have to define you, and who you think you are and can vastly change as you let go of damaging beliefs and embrace new ways of thinking for the future. Another favorite quote:

To reach a goal you have never before attained, you must do things you have never before done.
-Richard G. Scott

If you currently suffer from accepting or giving in to these myths and stereotypes, the time to change that is right now. It is going to take some action and a change in mindset, but it’s very possible.

Rather than believing the myths shared above, I want to share three truths about engineers you should accept instead:

  1. Engineers can develop exceptional communication skills (if they don’t already have them)
  2. Engineers have the capacity to become great leaders (as many already are)
  3. Successful engineers are creative (just look at what they create!)

Take the actions suggested in the solutions and practice activities and see what happens. You might be surprised at what you’re capable of.

About the Author

Jeff Perry has an uncommon ability to help grow people in technical organizations; he has the engineering skills to align cultures and teams with innovative, high-tech initiatives. He eagerly shares his passions for culture, creativity, engineering, technology, and good business. Using his unique blend of technical and business experience/education with a knack for training and coaching, Perry can help people see in themselves what they couldn't see before, and achieve more than they thought possible. With his mature outlook on relationships and circumstances, Perry can quickly rise above and see the big picture in order to recognize opportunities that solve debilitating issues facing people and projects. Perry recently launched a new free training on the five shifts needed to move into engineering leadership — go here to register and watch it. Feel free to reach out to Perry on LinkedIn or at

Rate this Article