Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 25, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 25, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

How to Speak Engineer
by Andrew Grapsas on 03/27/14 08:32:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


You’ve heard of Through a Dog’s Eyes, How to Speak Dog, and Inside a Dog. Somehow, there is ample literature on the perceptions, natures, and ways to facilitate good communication between man’s best friend and ourselves (assuming you, the reader, are human — apologies if you are not). At some point, while all of these researchers were following around doodle-this and doodle-that and watching them sniff butts, you would think one might observe and potentially interact with a far more important element of society that has the ability to build or break, well, everything.

The engineer.

As a non-technical person, how do you begin building a relationship with and speaking to an engineer? One of my friends basically asked this question of me. First, it is important to note that he and I have a very good relationship and talk regularly. So, obviously, he already speaks some level of engineer. Just as there are cats that will nip or swat at your hand at the least threatening of touches, there are engineers that require a deeper emotional understanding in order to craft a powerful relationship with good communication.

But, let us assume you do not have a me — a translator of technology personalities — and you do not have the ability to carefully select engineers that you will have an easy time building relationships with. How do you go about the creation of a social and professional rapport that will make 1) interactions more pleasant 2) reduce tensions all around and 3) improve your products.


First, when you are talking to an engineer, be aware of how much time you spend listening versus speaking. Often times, engineers have social cognitive disorders that make them feel uncomfortable in new social situations. In these cases, asking simple, easy questions about their work (make sure to avoid anything that could be seen as digging for progress or a boss/manager speaking about the product) should illicit a wealth of conversation. If speaking is a rare event for them, make sure you pay attention and listen.

A good way to show that you are actively listening is to repeat back what the engineer has said. “So, what I am hearing is it is difficult to work with shaders on the PS3, is that correct?” This simple sentence shows that you are paying attention, that you are interested, and that it is OK to keep talking (note: this is a trick trained to psychotherapists).

Go to Them or Find Neutral Ground

Calling an engineer somewhere or setting a meeting without a description is one of the worst acts you can perform in the eyes of an engineer. Not only is time sacred, but providing an unstructured anticipatory event will solicit imaginative panic. That is, an engineer will begin to question why you are speaking, what you will say, and will attempt to mold the situation in her mind. This leads to anxiety and will reduce the productivity of whatever chat you were intending to have.

Instead, try to go to the engineer, especially if they have an “off time” or you notice they are less engaged with their work. I highly suggest structuring your first conversations in a, “Hey, want to grab a coffee?” fashion. Do not make your first conversations immediately about work. Instead, get an upper (caffeine), make it somewhere you have to walk to or drive to, and begin the listening exercise above. This gives the engineer the option of engaging and supplies time to communicate.

I have formal methods for achieving this specific result. Every other week, I take each of my engineers out for tea. The meeting is unstructured, but consistent in time and can live on each engineer’s calendar. I make it very clear to new hires that these meetings are about discovering what I can do for them, how they are feeling, and to support my role as their advocate.

Baby Steps

This will sound ridiculous, but I will say it anyway: begin your relationship small. Say good morning. Go for a quick coffee. You need to build your relationship on a foundation of trust — 1) that you aren’t judging them 2) that you aren’t asking them to do anything special (such as work overtime one night) and 3) that you are genuinely interested in crafting a natural dialog. If an engineer is non-responsive early on, make a point of finding what she really enjoys and bringing it up, but do not push hard or ask a lot of questions if an engineer is being non-responsive. Give her space and time.

You are going to work together for years. Baby steps.


When in doubt, praise is the beginning of trust. “You did a great job on last week’s deliverable,” means a lot to someone who was heads down trying to get a product out. When in the listening phase, “You explained that well, now I understand” can go a long way to establishing a bond of trust.

With Great Responsibility

As a note, the above might sound like a recipe for manipulation. Please do not use it for such. There are ample keen engineers out there that have very sensitive manipulation mechanics (I am one of them). I might not say that I know what you are doing, but I know it is happening. The second you break that trust, an engineer will weigh and measure every word that comes out of your mouth. Be respectful. Be sincere.

Do this because it will help you at your job. Do this because we are all interdependent and good communication is the first step in removing evil from this world.

Let me know how your conversations go and good luck!

Andrew Grapsas is VP of Engineering at Sojo, an Adjunct Professor in the Computer Science department at Stevens Institute, and a consultant for companies building new teams or learning to rapidly craft new software products. You can read more of his musings at and follow him on twitter @AAGrapsas.

Related Jobs

Red 5 Studios
Red 5 Studios — Orange County, California, United States

Graphics Programmer
Red 5 Studios
Red 5 Studios — Orange County, California, United States

Gameplay Programmer
Gearbox Software
Gearbox Software — Plano, Texas, United States

Server Programmer
Forio — San Francisco, California, United States

Web Application Developer Team Lead


Alex Covic
profile image
What a supurb description and helpful tips on such a delicate, rather untangible social topos!

I had my own fill of being on both sides of this equation, too (not in the video game industry though).

There is especially a level of lesser studied wild life between managment types and engineers/programmers. I saw it from students and interns, fresh from college - no communication skills whatsoever - to senior management spending (actually: wasting) tons of money, just because they could not listen and/or not understand what their CTO said to them (the type of CTO, that should maybe not be a CTO in the first place, but that's yet another story).

There is a lot of years of wisdom dripping out of that blog entry?

Ian Richard
profile image
As an engineer this made me chuckle rather heavily. It sounds so familiar...

Honestly though, praise and baby steps aren't necessary. We just have a few touchy areas:
- If we are working... don't interrupt unless someone is dying. A quick "Let me know when you have a few minutes" is far better than breaking us out of code-zone. Our heads usually hurt during deep coding.

- Don't ask something you don't want the answer to. NOTHING is more frustrating than:
"Designer: What do you think?"
"Engineer: The hardware can't actually support this idea. The XXX prevents it."
"Designer: Well I think it's a cool idea... find a way to do it."

- We spend more of our time talking to computers... emotionless and literal. Sometimes, that slips out in our normal conversations... I apologize in advance.

Otherwise, we're just like anyone else... we'll any other slightly weird people.

Maurício Gomes
profile image
I think there are sometimes even worse:

Artist: "What do you think?"
Engineer: "This blue grass is looking actually very weird and ugly, I prefer green grass"
Artist: "You insensitive asshole!"

And it happened to me, more than once :/ Why people ask my opinion, if they get very upset (during university a guy actually cried) when I reply?

Thomas Happ
profile image
I second the part about interruptions and the migraines they can cause.

Travis Jones
profile image
Your second example of not asking questions one doesn't want the answer to is very on point. Of course, it goes to the greater advice of "Listening," but it's oddly common and specific enough to be mentioned directly.

And it certainly applies to more than just people asking questions of an engineer. I find that there is just a class of people that haven't learned how to handle honest feedback.

Ian Richard
profile image
For me, the real killer was:
"Designer: Hey, Ian! What are your plans this weekend"
"Me: My families coming up to visit. I haven't seen them since christmas."
"Designer: Yeeeeah... 'bout that. I have a great idea and I need you to put it in this weekend."

If you're going to make me work the weekend on a whim... at least be open about not giving a crap about me.

Why the hell do I miss working that industry sometimes? (Though we all know the answer is the people)

Robert Carter
profile image
Ive seen a company go down in flames from deciding to not listen to their engineers. We were using Unity for a full 3D MMO world and had a rough alpha after only 6 months, even though it was only myself and 3 other engineers (and we were all more or less newbies). It felt great to get so much done in such a short span of time!

Then, a new suit level guy who knew as much about the gaming industry as I do about politics in Thailand, decided that Unity wasnt really a game engine and we need to use the Unreal Engine, since hes heard about that one and "all the real games use that engine". "It also uses C++ which is a real coding language, not C# which is more of a scripting language like LUA". All of this from the guy they brought in to be our CTO

After the engineering team did a few months of research, the engineering team was unanimously opposed to the engine switch. Unreal source had C++, but we would be using unreal script for the game (Which I plan to NEVER go back to), the dev team was under 20 people so Unity @ 1500 a person was far less than the several hundred thousand plus 20% royalties over the lifetime of the game of Unreal with Source Code, and Unreal kind of fought us in making the MMO we were trying to make; the engine just wasnt made to do what we wanted and trying to have 4 engineers repurpose the engine would not pan out in our 1 year timeframe.

To add insult to injury, Unity 4.0 was released in the middle of this comparison test and I thought out game looked better with the addition of the Beast Lighting system then it did in Unreal. Unreal was a bad idea for our project any way you looked at it.

CTO said to hell with you guys, Im doing this anyway. He also forbade us from informing the rest of the team of our research, and told everyone that engineering approved his decision. 8 months later I left the company (cant say I didnt try to make it work) and 14 months later they were out of money with all investors pulled out and had LESS to show than we had working in Unity in those first six months.

It was a great learning experience for me. It left SUCH a sour taste in my mouth I almost left the gaming industry for good, but I can now say I am very happy I decided to stay in the industry. The vast majority of the people within the industry, even with the previous team, are just amazing people that I love working with.

Alan Barton
profile image
It makes me wonder how that CTO ever got his job?

I totally agree by far the vast majority of the people within this industry are good people. There are also a lot of very smart people in this industry and many of them don't know it ... much to their credit. I would much sooner work with people who don't know it, than the few who walk around thinking they are so great and are often not.

One other thing I've always enjoyed about this industry, and tried to be a part of, is how much so many people in our industry want to learn. I've worked in non-games companies as well and it is that which really stands out where they don't really want to learn, they just keep doing the same thing, year after year. Its not all companies outside of the games industry, but I have found it outside of the games industry in a few companies and its really startling when you do find it. Every games company I've been in has been filled with people who want to learn, which is really great to be around.

George Burdell
profile image
"Often times, engineers have social cognitive disorders that make them feel uncomfortable in new social situations."

I know offense is taken, not given, but regardless:
If an engineer is talking to someone, I can safely assume the last thing he/she wants is to be stereotyped into having a cognitive disorder.

Even if this is a joke, and even if it is partly true, and even though I agree with the remainder of your article, it should not be in a HOWTO social guide.

Public stigma is to brand everybody, in the age of individualism we are sure trying hard to put every mind in a disorder-box, it does not work.

Josh Sutphin
profile image
Even more to the point: most often the only "disorder" in play is simple introversion, which is not a disorder at all and is instead just a personality type.

It's a good article, but that point made it sound like every engineer has Aspergers, which is demonstrably untrue.

Katy Smith
profile image
Communication skills are so important when working in teams. I wish the article focused a bit more on "how to communicate with someone who isn't you" (at which it does a fairly good job) and a little less on the "socially awkward engineer" stereotype.

Katy Smith
profile image
grrr. double post.

Greg Scheel
profile image

Methinks the OP has social decency disorder.

Nicholas CH
profile image
I am disappointed Gamasutra has this article in its current state on their front page.

Statements like "Often times, engineers have social cognitive disorders that make them feel uncomfortable in new social situations." are simply hurtful generalizations. Making derogatory generalizations about any group (whether you belong to that group or not) is not ok.

I hope the writer of this article has the courage to confront his own prejudices and I hope he will revise this article to avoid advancing negative stereotypes about engineers.

John Maurer
profile image
Totally agree with you when it comes to time, it's very frustrating to constantly un-plug when non-programmers want to "talk". Praise is good, if only to settle the mind, that way we know we are going in the right direction.

However, I'm having trouble swallowing this one: "engineers have social cognitive disorders". When I'm NOT programming something, I'm worse than Deadpool, I can't shut up. When I'm plugged in, leave me the f*@k alone. It's not a social disorder, and I'm not angry, I'm just busy.

Travis Jones
profile image
May I just add one point of advice when talking *to* an engineer - that is trying to actively provide them with information? Test the waters first with an innocuous statement or question that will determine whether they already know what you're about to tell them.

Personally, I consider it a waste of my time and a little insulting when I'm told something that I already know.

Peter Thierolf
profile image
Praise can actually harm a relationship quite much, if praise is undue.
The actual example in the OPs article sound formulaic to me, you should better be sure that you actually understood when you start to praise an explanation - otherwise you risk to loose the respect of the praised one.

Its pretty bad for trust if suits (or producers at that) are praising the quality of the project when you know for sure it stinks.

Andrew Grapsas
profile image
Correct. It is very important that praise is genuine. Those were actual genuine examples, surprisingly. Think of a friend telling you that, or a coach, and maybe the words will sound differently. If you're completely disconnected from the team (a remote manager, for example), my example might ring hollow. It's important to have a relationship established before certain types of praise will work.

Juliette Dupre
profile image
Thanks for this! It's a great reminder of the challenges that some engineers face, and how to help them feel more comfortable. I'm an empathetic person, so I sense that but sometimes don't know how to help a person I'm talking too to get past that. Baby steps is a good reminder too. I sometimes wish I was closer or the first person every one of my engineers would come to with a problem, but that is unrealistic when some have not known me for many years yet.

I have to say that engineers are some of my favorite friends. They are genuine, straightforward, and the only folks who will play MTG with me! And it's been an incredible pleasure to watch some of them bloom their communications skills since I have known them.

Andrew Grapsas
profile image
Wow, thanks for all of the comments, I didn't expect this to get front page. It was written primarily for a friend by his request.

I see a lot of people taking offense to the social cognitive disorder comment. I highly suggest you ask yourselves why you are being so sensitive to the topic. I have spent years teaching both children and professionals with a variety of cognitive disorders how to write code and be better engineers and can say Computer Science has a unique affinity for those with social difficulties. That being said, it is important to understand that social cognitive disorders do not need to be as extreme as Asperalgers. I was just illustrating that there is a very real possibility that an engineer that is quiet, reserved, or not necessarily easy to talk to has a brain that actually is functioning differently -- which is what social cognitive disorders are.

I myself have hints of social cognitive disorders (as do nearly all of the engineers I work with). The prevalence of social disorders is on the rise (especially in the male portion of the population). Let's face reality instead of having an emotional knee-jerk reaction when talking about a scientifically occurring condition that affects a lot of men and, especially, a lot of engineers. Does it make someone harder to work with? No. Does it make someone a better engineer? No. It's just a social condition everyone should be aware of, because it _will_ affect your life if you're surrounded by engineers.

I hope that explains why that was present in this article.

Thank you for all of the feedback! Much appreciate everyone who has taken their time to comment on this article and really appreciate the read.