Communicating with a software engineer


Like any working professional, software engineers are extremely busy. There is more code to write than there is time. For this, we can be very picky with which tools we choose to communicate. A normal day can be filled with meetings, email , and then actually trying to write code. For the engineer, we have time for few things, and writing code is top priority. So, what’s the best method for getting a developer’s attention?

Here’s some tactics that will help you get in touch quickly with the guys building the next best life changing tools.

Nothing beats email.

iphone mail icon

Ask any software engineer how many email they have unread, and you will hear something like:
“362, and over 1,000 flagged”

It doesn’t matter how many exclamation marks are in the subject line. For the engineer, email is good for only 3 things

  1. keeping ARCHIVED records
  2. powerful, CONTAINED searches
  3. gTalk

Engineers avoid the inbox because they are concentrating on other tools for tracking current tasks and projects; tools like Jira, Pivitol Tracker, & Base Camp. Ironically, much of our unread email are the reports or notifications from these systems redundantly filling our inbox on every little change from team members. Most engineers use email as a peripheral tool, to later glance at the subject lines and move on . That’s assuming they actually ever see the subject line. Often times, we manage this obese volume of data by using filters, labels, and/or tags. Among some best practice filters (“mark as read” always optional):

  • all email with the word “unsubscribe”, move to Trash
  • all email with users in the To: or CC: that have an email with * , archive it in the folder “{ || project name}”
  • all email with Jira | Git | Pivotal Tracker mark as read, archive to {projectname}
  • all email with in the To: , {mark as unread || flag }

Of course we got your email…it’s just that we may be filtering your message deep into a folder tree that may or may not move from bold to inrastional text.

Maybe I’ll just give him a call.

iphone iconMmmmm, good luck with that. Perhaps it’s different for each, but my phone practically lives in silent mode. Besides, we are all wearing headphones staring at our screens. Phones are out of sight, out of mind. That said, I do see the missed calls at the end of the day, and the queue of voicemails waiting for my attention. Albeit, voicemail is like email’s little sister; they are practically family, and shy of the progressive filter system, the end result is roughly the same.

Instant Message?

You’re getting it now! This is a pretty good bet. At any given moment, most of us are plugged in into at least one of many networks: Skype, gTalk, Jabber, etc. IM is even better than tapping an engineers shoulder to ask that pending question. Here’s why…with IM, we have the ability to finish what’s in front of us without feeling like we are being interrupted. This keeps you on the good side with the likeliness of getting the answers you need quickly…faster than email, guaranteed. It’s just less obtrusive, and allows the engineer to keep on task.

Like email, IM also allows us to have a history of valuable information that may pop up in a conversation. Lines of code sample, links, commitments to tasks – these are those valuable items that get answered but don’t always “soak in”- the instant message is a way to have that conversation, get answers in real time, and have a reference to it later. We love IM.

Do you have Linda's email?
Linda, the one who does QA for the client.
              Oh, i'll x/v sec
     - LOL, x/v == Cut/Paste

How about a game of Foosball?

You’re catching on. Much can be discussed over the knocking of that little white ball. Most engineers will not be upset you interrupted their workflow for a game of Foosball. But be careful…this is break time; you tred on a fragile window of time. And in the Grio office, you may have to endure the trash talk of your Italian colleagues who will most likely win. But it can still be an open table where you can drop subject matter. Just don’t expect to say a lot, and be wise with your words.


Yup! Here at Grio, we keep the kitchen stocked with yummy snacks, cookies, drinks, and of course, coffee. Keeping sustenance and libations near the engineers can be much like loading the cheese into the mousetrap…the inevitable break(s) for the kitchen will come at some moment in the day….and as soon as that snack cupboard opens, you can pin that engineer in the corner and ask, “Hey, did you get that email I sent this morning?”.

1 Comment

  1. Mark McQuillen on said:

    Some great tips. I’ve definitely have had some productive conversations over ping pong and nachos. Gonna give the instant messaging a try. Can think of a few instances in which that would have been helpful.

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