In my time as a corporate consultant, I spent many years teaching classes and facilitating meetings in the heart of Silicon Valley. I moved down there after spending 12 years in San Francisco, where I held down my last known "real job." I grew up somewhat of a granola head in Marin County (the place on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge – and for those that don’t understand the ‘granola head’ reference, it is an affectionate term I give to hippies) and spent a lot of years doing creative work through my obsession with capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.
So the first time I walked into a conference room populated almost entirely with engineers, I was in for a very rude awakening. I don’t remember the subject of the first class I taught, but it must have been something along the lines of career development or management skills. Before the first word was out of my mouth, a student flagged my attention:
"Excuse me, but do you know that the percentages don’t add up correctly on the graph on page 27 of the workbook?"
I must have mumbled something like "Oh – ok, thanks for telling me" while inside I was thinking "Who the hell cares, and why are you skipping so far ahead in the workbook before we even begin?"
After that I must have tried some lame icebreaker exercise that I thought was creative and fun. They ridiculed it and refused to participate. I felt like I had stepped into a bad dream.
All day I endured challenge, tough questions, attacks to my credibility and tough stares. If I didn’t fancy myself a tough martial artist, I would have cried in the restroom. But I held it together. From that day forward, I made it my mission to try to understand the mind of a highly technical person since it was so far away from my own. What I learned:
Cut the crap. Lose anything from my presentation that was perky, Marketing or HR-ish.
Back it up back it up back it up. Not my laptop, the facts of the presentation. If I was going to use a quote from a study or say casually "70% of the world are visual learners, while 20% are auditory and 10% kinesthetic," I better have the citation for the specific study, research pool, date of publication and detailed analysis. Highly technical people like engineers detest made-up numbers, especially when they are used to support an argument.
Make it relevant to them. If I was teaching a class on delivering tough performance reviews, I would take a real-life example from the students in the room (names withheld of course). Case studies or made up situations were prime targets for those that wanted to prove that the class was meaningless.
Have a sense of humor. Once I got to know and love working with technical folks, I learned that after I made it through the first couple of rounds of criticism by demonstrating my expertise, I could relax and have some fun.
Don’t wimp out. The technical person hates someone who whimpers and acquiesces to pressure almost as much as a lie-spouting salesperson. They put pressure on you to make you think and to see what you are made of, not to be a bully. I have to admit that I used the threat of physical violence first thing in my classes. I have a strange sense about who will give me trouble as soon as I see a group assembled, so I would usually walk up to the most cynical and/or biggest one, look him in the eye and say "in addition to my professional background, I am also trained in martial arts and not afraid to use it." This usually got a big guffaw from the rest of the room, and I almost always got a smile and respect from the potential troublemaker.
Don’t believe them when they say they don’t care. Some of the kindest, most creative and thoughtful people I met in my years consulting were technical folks. Once I gained their trust and friendship, they were really open and considerate. I had one engineer at Cisco refer at least 10 new clients to me based on the career coaching work we did together. (Thanks Eric – wherever you are!)
I am absolutely sure that the ass-kicking I took from my technical clients has made me a better trainer, coach, businessperson and marketer. Not to mention a more empathetic human being. And for those of you technical folks who are reading this, sorry I don’t have a table with the exact percentage improvement I made in each category described above. You just have to take my word for it that it was a lot.