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March 16, 2022 | 21 Mins Read

Upskilling the Communication of a Technical Workforce

March 16, 2022 | 21 Mins Read

Upskilling the Communication of a Technical Workforce

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Sarah welcomes Neil Thompson, creator of Teach the Geek and host of the Teach the Geek podcast, to discuss his personal journey as a product development engineer that found he needed to improve his communication skills when he was put into a position where presenting and public speaking was necessary. As a result, he’s created the Teach the Geek program to help others in similar position and weighs in on how companies can best upskill and reskill an engineering-centric workforce to have more soft skills.

Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Nicastro. Today we're going to be talking about the need to upskill and reskill the frontline workforce with some soft skills and communication skills, and talk a little bit about is that possible? How is that possible? To what degree is that possible? Et cetera. I'm excited to welcome with me here today Neil Thompson, who is the creator of Teach the Geek. Neil, welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast.

Neil Thompson: Thank you for having me.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, thanks for being here. So, before we dig into the topic at hand, tell our listeners a bit about yourself, your journey, and your program Teach the Geek.

Neil Thompson: It all stemmed from my initial struggles, having to give presentations in front of senior management at the second company I worked at. The first company I worked at I was a research associate. I only worked in the lab, I did experiments, wrote protocols, wrote reports, and went home, came back, did the same thing the next day. And I didn't have a problem with that. I did that for about two years. It was the second job that I took as a product development engineer where public speaking, or just communicating with people, came into play. At least for the first few months I didn't have to do any of that. It was very similar to my first job, but then it came a time where I was made a project lead. So I wasn't product development engineer anymore, I was the project lead.

Neil Thompson: So why the project lead? Well, the company was too cheap to hire project managers, so they pushed that responsibility onto product development engineers, one of which was having to give presentations on project status in front of senior management on a monthly basis. So we're talking the CEO, CTO, CMO, fill the blank O. All these people were in the audience listening to me give presentations. And those first few presentations were absolutely horrendous. I didn't know it was possible to sweat that profusely from one's body. Sweat's not supposed to come out of your fingernails, but there it was. And I know a lot of the other engineers that had to get presentations who also were made project leads. Their presentations weren't all that much better than mine. I think the issue that many of us have is having all this technical expertise, but not putting it in such a way that non-technical people can understand. With the exception of the CTO, basically everybody else in the senior management team weren't technical.

Neil Thompson: So a lot of the times what would happen is I would have to answer questions after the presentation that I thought I'd answered during the presentation, but because I didn't put it in such a way that these people could understand now I'm sweating even more. I was sweating enough during the presentation and now even after the presentation I'm sweating even more than that. And basically was a waste of time for myself, waste of time for the audience. It was just a waste of time in general. So I eventually realized that this is something I really should get better at. And I did just because of all the reps I had to do. I had to do this every month. And I basically took everything that I learned in becoming more effective at communicating with these people and I turned it into an online course and I called it Teach the Geek to Speak. And it's geared towards people like myself, people that have technical jobs and have to give presentations in front of others, and just how to go about doing it more effectively.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. So, when you started being in a position where you had to give these presentations, would you say it was more nerves or more not feeling like you related the people you were speaking to, or that they didn't relate to you? Or was it more actual skill of here are some of the things that make for an effective presentation, or just a combination of all of that?

Neil Thompson: Oh, it was all the above, Sarah. It was not preparing. So a lot of the times I would just get up there and talk, or in some instances it would be me preparing slides and just putting a whole bunch of stuff on them and reading them when I got up in front of people. And it's very difficult to engage people when you're reading, because you're not really looking at them. And then as I mentioned, ultimately, what would happen is I get these questions afterwards, so to then nerves even came in there. So it was just an amalgam of a bunch of problems that I had and the other engineers had given these presentations, and it just wasn't effective. And at some point, in case you want keep being a sweaty mess, you're going to do something about it.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. So the program you created, Teach the Geek... I mean, first of all, I think it's really cool that you saw the opportunity to not just... You recognized, "Okay, I need to get better at this. If I'm going to have to keep doing it, I need to get better at it." But you also recognize the opportunity to help others that were in similar positions that had the same struggles. So, I think that's really cool. I also think it's kind of outgoing, right? I mean, it forces you even further out of the comfort zone, because now you're not only doing the presentations and improving your own skills, but you are communicating with enough others that you're helping them improve their skills. So, I think that's really, really neat. Tell us a little bit about what the program is like. So, it's intended to help people who are going to be tasked with public speaking, correct?

Neil Thompson: That's right.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. And it's an online course. Just kind of give us an overview of what's the length and who is it... It's geared toward folks like yourself. So people in highly technical positions that want to improve their skills speaking to a group of non-technical people.

Neil Thompson: Correct.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So how long is the program?

Neil Thompson: The program if you were to listen to everything from start to finish is about 90 minutes. And I made it that length on purpose. I didn't want it to be too long because I wanted people to actually finish it. From a bit of research that I did on courses one of the issues that there are with courses is the finish rate isn't very high, especially if there's a lot of modules to go through people. Initially it start off, "Oh, we're excited about doing it," but then somewhere in the middle they're going to lose interest and then never finish it. Well, if it's just 90 minutes, I mean, that's really difficult to lose interest.

Neil Thompson: I mean, you probably watch movies that are longer. So I made it that short on purpose. But then at the end of it there are exercises that I suggest people do to actually improve their public speaking skills. And you can listen to all or do all the courses you want, listen to all the podcasts, watch all the YouTube videos you want, but if you don't actually get out there and implement whatever you learn from these various resources you'll never get better. So I have exercises at the end of it to really implement what I talk about in the course.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Yeah, that's what I was going to say. It's part knowledge and information, and then it's part, like you said, you improved yourself just by a forced practice, right? And so there's an element... But I think to me it seems like another part of the value of this program for people is just the recognition that if they feel uncomfortable or nervous or this isn't familiar to them, they're not alone in that, right? There's also, I think, some comradery of, "Okay, I'm not the first person to feel this way, I won't be the last person to feel this way, and if Neil and these other people have improved I can improve too or learn these different skills." So I think that's really cool. So, Neil, I explained a little bit before we started recording this that... So, your experience is different than that of our audience, but not so much so that there aren't some correlations.

Sarah Nicastro: And what I mean by that is... So you were an engineer and you had to start giving these presentations. What I explained to you before we started recording is that within our audience a lot of companies are in a situation where they have field engineers. So they have field engineers that go out and do either installation or repair work on sometimes very highly technical equipment. And historically, their job has been very much just go to the customer sites, fix the problem and leave, right? And for a variety of reasons what those companies are asking from their field engineers is evolving a bit because the nature of service is evolving such that rather than just completing the technical work we're now also looking to those field engineers to play a very important role in building relationships with those customers, and maybe sharing knowledge and insights with them in addition to fixing the actual equipment that they're to fix.

Sarah Nicastro: And so, this gives companies the task of really upskilling and reskilling those technicians to be more competent at building and maintaining and nurturing those relationships. And so, while it is a different than your personal experience it's not so different, right? And so I wanted to ask you some questions related to this topic. You call your program Teach the Geek, so my first question is, do you feel like all geeks or all highly technical engineer type people can be upskilled in these areas related to communication and soft skills or no?

Neil Thompson: Oh, I would never say that anyone cannot learn a skill. If they're interested in learning the skill you can learn pretty much anything, and especially if you see the benefit of learning that skill. It's really difficult to be forced to learn something. So if you're a field engineer and you want to continue you to just do your job, fix whatever instrument there is, and then go about your day and rinse and repeat, then yes, those people would be difficult to upskill, but if you are someone who sees the benefit of becoming more effective with just communicating with others, then you'll do it.

Neil Thompson: And not only that, but if you're a field engineer who wants the promotion and pay raises that you think you deserve, well, becoming better at communicating with others is a must. Oftentimes, those are the people who get those promotions and pay raises. It's not necessarily the most technically gifted people in the group or the ones who are the best at their job, technically it's those who do a good job of communicating their worth to the company. And so if you see it that way, then it'd be very easy to then convince you that this is something to get better at.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, if you reflect back on your personal experience, now you were kind of thrown into this situation where you had to do these presentations and you kind of recognized your own need to polish those skills or improve those skills. If companies are looking at this in a more strategic or proactive way like, "Okay, we recognize this role is evolving and we need to take more steps to upskill and reskill our field engineers with some of these soft skills and communication skills," what would you suggest they keep in mind as they kind of take on that initiative?

Neil Thompson: Well, there certainly may be some resistance to some. I mean, as I mentioned, there's some that just want to continue to do what they've been doing. And change can be really difficult for some people, but there're going to be people that embrace it. And so, those who do, well, they'll be more willing to go along with whatever strategy that the company has in improving these skills with these people. And for those who are more resistant perhaps if they see the benefits that the ones who did embrace it now have perhaps that's enough to convince them that this is a path to go down as well.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Are there certain approaches or tools, or types of teachings that you would recommend specifically for an audience that's highly technical?

Neil Thompson: Proof. You got to prove that this stuff kind of works. So, just even convincing engineers and scientists types to do anything they want to see some sort of evidence that this is something to even bother doing. So, having case studies of what people have been able to do when they've gone through, for instance, this course and how it's been able to help them is really helpful in convincing them that this is something that could work for them as well. And one of those case studies that I tend to use happens be one of my former coworkers. He was a product development engineer just like I was. And as part of our job, in addition to having to give these presentations in front of management, we'd often have to go to conferences and present either posters or even orally.

Neil Thompson: And so in the event that we were presenting posters, he would often shy away from a talking to the of people who'd come to our poster, and oftentimes that'd have to be the one to do most of the talking. But because he went through the course, he's become a lot more comfortable engaging with others to the point where he doesn't even work as a product development engineer anymore, he works as a product manager. And that's moving from product development to marketing. So if you're working in market, you're definitely going to have a more customer-facing position. So he had to have been way more comfortable dealing with others to have even taken such a position. So, obviously, something must have worked. I'd like to think that my course has something to do with that.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Yeah, that's really cool. So, when you work with people, do you find any commonality in sort of how technical people evolve through this process? Is every path different? Or are there are any kind of common stages or phases of what it looks like to move from being kind of uncomfortable to getting more familiar and kind of mastering the art a bit?

Neil Thompson: Well, I think for a lot of technical people there's a lot of technical jargon that they're comfortable with and they use amongst each other. But one thing that they have to understand is that the audience, especially if you're talking to a non-technical audience, they may not understand that technical jargon, so it'd be in your best interest to explain it or perhaps even use other words that are more commonly used. Because what would happen a lot of the times is people may not even ask what those words mean. They just won't listen at all. And so you want to avoid that scenario altogether. So, it's in your best interest if you're a technical person that uses a lot of technical jargon just generally in your daily life doing your work that keep the expertise of the people you're speaking to in mind when you're preparing your presentations.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. One thing I'm thinking about, Neil, as we're talking through this for the organizations that would be in our audience is it might be best to consider either leveraging an external resource or co-creating a program with someone on your technical team who is more accepting of the change, right? Because what I was just thinking as you were talking about kind of the jargon and that sort of thing is there's probably a lot of aspects to this where it's the creation of the program or the execution of the upskilling and reskilling is done by someone who isn't an engineer or isn't the technical person. They could miss a lot because some of the things that maybe come natural to them wouldn't come natural to others, or some of the kind of foundational elements like that, realizing not to use too many acronyms or too much technical speak.

Sarah Nicastro: And so, kind of the training of when you're talking about this with the customer here's kind of the level you want to present at, those sorts of things. You kind of need the firsthand or could benefit from the firsthand input of someone on your team who is highly technical to help with shaping what upskilling and reskilling could look like so that you don't miss important aspects, and so that maybe some of the technical people who are a little bit more resistant to change respect the program more because it's been created or co-created by someone like them. Does that make sense?

Neil Thompson: Well, it makes perfect sense. That's the main reason Teach the Geek is geared towards people like myself, because of that credibility I would think that someone like myself would bring as opposed to someone else that has a communications course who is in that field. I mean, there's a lot of communication courses out there, but are they geared towards people in the technical field? And if they are, were they created by people that come from that field? I don't know of any besides my own. So I think that's been really helpful in me just differentiating myself.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And I think that that's just something to keep in mind is... You mentioned change is hard, right? And so when you're asking employees, especially longstanding employees, to really evolve the way that they've done their job for a long period of time, number one, like you said, it's tough if it's just force, force, force, right? The more you can create buy-in the better, but number two, think about how you're creating this in a way that shows you respect the technical talent, not that you're just trying to change it, right? Because you're not trying to remove technical expertise, you're just trying to augment it with some of the soft skills or communication skills that haven't been a focus up to that point. It's a really good point. Okay, so shifting gears just a bit, Neil, I know one of the other things that you're passionate about is creating more awareness around STEM careers, and particularly for black children. So, tell us a little bit about your passion in this area. And I know that you've written a children's book, so tell us about that as well.

Neil Thompson: Sure. The book is called Ask Uncle Neil: why is my hair curly? It's about my nephew asking me why his hair is the way it is, and I use science to answer the question. And the motivation for me writing the book is to encourage more black children to consider careers in STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. And I'm really keen on the messaging of my motivation. My goal isn't to convince more black children to go into STEM, it's to have them see it as an option, because ultimately it's your life.

Neil Thompson: You're going to go into whatever you want to go into, but I just want them to know that there's this other thing out there called STEM that is for them if they want it to be for them. STEM's for anybody who has the interest in it and is willing to do the work. It's not for any particular group of people. And that's what I really want to get across from the children's book. And eventually, it will be a series. That's the plan. This is the first of the series. So the series will always be my nephew asking me a question and I use science to answer it.

Sarah Nicastro: I love that. We've done quite a bit of content on this podcast specifically around creating more awareness of STEM and the skilled trades, right? We need to do a better job of emphasizing to young people the wide variety of career paths that exist. And I think to your point it isn't about advocating anyone go down a particular path at all, it's just about making sure that we're doing a better job of showing all of the options that are exist to all of the people that they exist for, and to make sure that girls aren't just presented with the options of becoming a princess, right? But there's all of these other options, and that we're doing a better job of representation when comes to, what do these careers look like? And all of those sorts of things. So I really, really like that, and I definitely want to check out the book.

Sarah Nicastro: So besides the book you have so far, and the rest that we'll be a part of that series, what are some of the other ways that you think we can all have a positive impact on making STEM, I guess, more prominent and more attainable for those who have an interest in it?

Neil Thompson: Well, it starts with talking about it. I mean, this seems to be coming full circle. If you're an engineer or a scientist who is adept at communicating with others, then you should be more comfortable communicating what you do with others as well. And this doesn't even have to do within the company, this could be outside the company talking to students about what you do. And that's really helpful. People can't do what they don't know is out there. So if you're talking about what you do as your job, then they might think, "That sounds interesting. I want to look more into that." But in the event that they never hear from you or someone like you, well, then they never hear about that particular position, that particular job. And then it becomes way more difficult for them to ever go into it unless they do some research and it's come across it happenstance.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. I have two sons, Neil, five and six, and one of their favorite shows right now is Ada Twist, Scientist. And I love that for them. I love that they are interested in that show. I love how educational it is, but I also love how it just shows these career paths and different just things that we haven't done a good enough job showing and influence really early on, so that kids grow up with just more awareness that there are these careers and these different options. So you also host a podcast. So tell us a little bit about that.

Neil Thompson: Sure. It's called Teach the Geek Podcast. And I interview typically people in the STEM fields, a lot of scientists and engineers, about their journeys in public speaking. But then I also talk to them about their career journeys. And that's even been more interesting, especially for the ones who perhaps started at one place and then ended up somewhere completely different. One that stands out is a woman who got a degree in civil engineering, never worked as a civil engineer though. She then went to law school and became a lawyer and did that for a few years, but then she left that and became a stay at home mom for about a decade, and now she works as a personal stylist. Not the typical career path, but it's so interesting to hear those types of stories of people not necessarily starting... Well, starting at one place and ending up somewhere completely different and not feeling like they had to stay on a particular path, but then just they were willing to follow whatever interest they had. And those types of people are always interesting for me to talk to.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, I love that. And I think that's the great thing about the program you've created with Teach the Geek, is people shouldn't need to feel stuck. I mean, there's so many options to learn and to grow. And if there are things about your professional life that you want to change, or if you want to completely pivot, it's good to know that's possible. And you have the power to make improvements, you have the power to expand your skillsets. And for people that want to, those stories of how people completely switch it up are really cool as well. Okay, so Teach the Geek Podcast, I want to ask you two questions, and I'm going to pause here to make sure I separate them because I am notorious for asking multiple questions at once and it always throws people off. So first question is, what words of wisdom or advice would you offer someone in your former position? So someone in an engineering role that wants to improve some of their communication skills.

Neil Thompson: Look for opportunities to do it, and don't shy away from the ability to actually get out there and do it. I think I mentioned earlier, you can read all the books and listen to all the podcasts, do all the courses you want, but you won't get better at it unless you do it. And don't be that disgruntled engineer or scientist sitting in their cubicle because someone else in the company got the promotion, the pay raise that you thought you deserved. If they were the one that was out there improving their communication skills, talking to decision makers, and they eventually got that position, and you didn't do any of that, well, you have no reason to be upset.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, that's good advice. And what advice would your words of wisdom would you want to leave with some of the people that listen to this podcast, which are those ultimately responsible for figuring out how to upscale and reskill those field engineers and help them become better at some of this customer communication?

Neil Thompson: Well, I think to convince people of anything you have to show them what's in it for them. And so if those engineers are told by the management, "Well, you know how people get jobs here, right? It's from networking, it's from communicating with people, decision makers, people in authority." If you're not willing to do any of that kind of stuff, well, then you're likely going to be that engineer or scientist sitting in their cubicle upset. And then that pushes it back on that field engineer or whoever the technical person is to think, "Well, I don't want to be that disgruntled person sitting in the cubicle. So if this is going to be something to help me so that I'm not that person, well, then bring it on."

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. The other thing I'm thinking about, Neil, going back to the point we made about change and all of that, this situation's going to look different for every organization, but one thing to consider might be the role of positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement. So, if you have the opportunity going into this to make it something where rather than penalizing people for not doing this effort, you can incentivize them to do it, then maybe you have more of those case study examples of "Hey, Chris just completed this and as a result he got a raise, or he has some sort of perk, and Chris can speak to his experience in a positive way." Right?

Sarah Nicastro: Again, it's about I think respecting the fact that we're all human and we have the capacity to change and to grow and expand our skills, but that the people pushing that agenda need to do so respectfully, and need to keep in mind how they're communicating the benefit to the employee that they're asking this of. That makes sense. Okay. All right, Neil, tell our listeners where they can learn more about Teach the Geek. So we have the program, let people know about that as well as the podcast.

Neil Thompson: Sure. So the program you can go to teachthegeek.com. And if you want to check out the podcast... Well, you can either check out the YouTube channel or the podcast and you can get to either of them at youtube.teachthegeek.com. And then if you're interested in learning more about the book, you can go to askuncleneilbooks.com.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. Excellent. All right, Neil, well, they thank you so, so much for coming on and sharing today. I really appreciate it. I think your story is a really inspiring one. And I think it's great that you've created this program and you are taking your own experience and using it as something to help others. And I'm going to check out the book for sure, and I appreciate you being here.

Neil Thompson: Thank you for having me.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. You can learn more by visiting us at futureoffieldservice.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn as well as Twitter @TheFutureOfFS. The Future of Field Service podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more at ifs.com. As always, thank you for listening.