December 15, 2006
From time to time I interact with technical people convinced that if they can write good code that's all they need to be successful. We'll talk in a future article about specific steps you can take to make your writing more effective. But if you're in the "writing won't matter for my career" camp, then you need to read this first.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the benefits of being able to write well.
Your core products as a scientist or engineer are ideas, and ideas have to be communicated to have any value. The default mode of this communication will be written products (email, white papers, proposals, etc.). By far you'll spend the lion's share of your efforts throughout your career communicating ideas in writing. And this is true in all fields of science, engineering and technology, not just in high performance computing.
With the importance of e-mail in all professions, but especially in technology professions, writing has also become the foundation of that all-important interaction: the first impression. Many times the first interaction -- perhaps the first several interactions you have with a client, a peer, or a boss -- will be via e-mail.
Writing well and clearly communicating your message will shape a positive first impression of you and the kind of person you are, and also of your technical competence. Creating a poor first personal impression in writing is something that you can recover from when you actually meet the person, but you will have a hard time recovering from the poor impression your e-mail recipient will form of your technical abilities.
They shouldn't be related, but they are, because as we've talked about before you are a service to your employer.
Poor writing skills will stall your career early. And if you cannot communicate well in writing you're going to have a very tough time making a successful career from your first job. Even if this handicap doesn't inhibit you in an entry-level position, you will run into a wall on your first promotion.
Team leaders have to maintain a variety of written documents, including project progress reports and plans, which many people will review. If you cannot create these written documents effectively, you will quickly stagnate. You might say to yourself, "Well, that's fine for those money-grubbing prep-school folks, but I want to be an engineer the rest of my life. I don't care about getting promoted, so my writing doesn't matter." Wrong!
If you want to spend your life, head down, in the trenches, it is probably because you care passionately about what you are doing. In order for your designs and ideas to be implemented you're going to have to be able to communicate them to others in...guess what?...writing!
West is the director of a Top 20 supercomputing center and author of The Only Trait of a Leader (www.onlytraitofaleader.com), a book and blog about leadership and career skills for technology professionals. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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