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Twitter is a Serious Engineering Tool

By Peter Varhol

To be perfectly honest, I cringed a bit in writing that title, but the more I think about it, the more I see this particular social networking trend as a real benefit.

As a technical journalist, I’m expected to reach out to readers in a variety of ways, including written text, public speaking, video, and social networking. As an old-school engineer and journalist, the latter two on the list don’t necessarily come naturally. But when you combine all these types of communication, you end up with a very compelling way of communicating a story to a variety of constituents.

More than ever, engineering is about teamwork. Most of us likely work on a team that consists of a few engineers with different skill sets who work on different aspects of a design, along with support people responsible for documentation and configuration. In many cases, these people aren’t all in the same physical location—part of the team might be offshore, while others might work in other company offices elsewhere in the country.

A complex design and development project, a geographically dispersed team, a tight schedule, and the need to communicate daily with one another on progress, problems, solutions, failures, and the thousands of small but critical decisions that make up any engineering project begs for a simple communication tool. And while many software vendors have developed products that attempt to enable and enhance the storage and communication of technical information in a project, they often do so in a way that makes it difficult to understand and find that information.

Guess what? Twitter might be the answer. It might be a better alternative than any specialized commercial product designed to enhance technical team communication. You might already have a Twitter account for personal use, but if you haven’t given it a try, here’s how it works. You sign up for a free account at http://twitter.com. This gives you the right to post a brief (140 characters maximum) statement about what you are doing at a given period of time.

Others can follow what you write, reading it in real time, either on a computer or a handheld phone. With smartphones becoming the norm in professional environments, it is reasonable to expect that just about everyone would have easy access to a Twitter account, and a Twitter feed. At worst, you read the Twitter updates at work, on your work computer.

Up to now, this sounded amusing as a social game, yet hardly useful. But take it a step further. Each team member signs up for an individual account dedicated to project work. Your design team can get a group Twitter account, so everyone in the group can follow it, and each other, with their own accounts. If you have a big team, break it down still further so that everyone has access to the information they need.

So you start to see brief messages such as, “Made an addition to the BOM today,” or “Recalculated tolerances on the stress points, see the new data at <URL or network location>.” Team members provide each other with brief updates and pointers to further information.

All of this is documented in detail elsewhere, of course. But Twitter serves as a notification and a pointer to the latest design information. This is precisely what many of the existing engineering tools miss. We know that the data we need is somewhere, but either we don’t get the message, or don’t know where to look for the details.

Today, Microsoft’s Bing search engine is able to search Twitter, and Google can’t be far behind. That means that all team members not only get the messages and the pointers, but can also search for them. Everyone is on the same page, and anyone can find the project or technical updates whenever they need them. Ultimately, such communication can be the difference between success and failure in an engineering project.

Peter Varhol has been involved with software development and systems management for many years. Send comments about this column to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.

About Peter Varhol

Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for Digital Engineering. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.