Keil Hubert, Biz Tech’s resident US tech blogger, looks this week at translating shop floor techy-speak into simple English for Executives ©.
I got an earful of criticism from some hard-core nerds last week about my column on virtualization. Some of the lads were displeased with my lorry analogy. They all had their opinion on a better way to communicate the concepts.
I understand their point; analogy is a crude tool, and if you’re clumsy using it, you can leave your audience with a terribly skewed impression; potentially one that does more harm than good.
I am a huge believer in precise language. I despise undefined pronouns in conversation and will usually halt a tech in mid-sentence if he makes too many assumptions about my foreknowledge of what he’s discussing.
Similarly, I’m always skeptical of similes, metaphors and analogies when they’re chucked at me by marketing types. I can usually “get” what the marketer is trying to convey … but that’s rarely what the product actually does. I want to know what I’m buying, not what the non-technical sales weasel is selling.
That said, strong language skills are indispensible for those of us working in business technology. Seven times out of ten, the senior management types that I provide IT services for don’t have the faintest idea how any of the systems and networks actually work. When something goes sideways, the grumpy and impatient users get anxious and lash out.
They don’t understand what’s wrong, can’t communicate what they’re experiencing, can’t work out their own work-around, and feel trapped. It gets worse when an older executive calls in to the service desk and has a teenage geek sneer at him over the phone for his technical ineptitude. I inevitably wind up paying for that for years after each incident.
You can rarely ever find a senior management type that’s willing to sit still for the forty or so hours that it takes to demystify TCP/IP. They’re impatient people by nature – that’s how they rose up through the ranks. They want to build! Or sell! Or whatever it takes to drive revenue! If they wanted to be a tech, they’d have done it in their youth (or so they’ll tell you with a haughty sniff).
They’re certainly not inclined to listen to a detail-saturated lecture about network traffic analysis or why you can’t just click on the “bugs = off” option on the e-mail server console. Show these blokes a Command Line Interface, and most of them will start to seize up.
This is where storytelling ability becomes your best weapon. The blokes in the corner office are neither interested in nor willing to learn about the techy stuff, but they almost always keen about something else – usually sport – which you can co-opt in order to get an idea across.
In my last department, for example, almost all of the lads were obsessive about American football. Back when we used to hold our departmental staff meeting on Tuesday mornings, they would all come in all chuffed about some game or exciting play or statistical anomaly that had occurred the night before. It would take me darned near fifteen minutes to get the guys back on track.
Now, for honesty’s sake, let’s be clear: it would probably take a team of theoretical physicists and aLarge Hadron Collider to discover a way to make me care any less about sport. I can watch the games and understand (generally) what’s happened, but the outcome is utterly meaningless to me. I don’t want to hear about it.
However … I understand that many of the bosses are equally crazy about sport. One of our senior executives, for example, is a fanatic for professional ice hockey. I discovered many years back that if I invest some time researching a topic that my executives enjoy, enough to build an analogy within the topic, it pays tremendous dividends. Here’s the simple rule:
If you can communicate in your executives’ preferred language, then they’ll be far more likely to listen to and understand what you’re saying when you try to explain a technical issue.
For my hockey-loving executive, for example, I could talk until I’m blue in the face about how the Internet is not “broken” when he finds that he can’t reach an off-campus web service. The concepts of applications, services and throughput may as well be Ancient Thassilonian as far as he’s concerned.
Yet, when I suggest that it’s more like him, as a hockey player, taking a shot on the opposing goal from the middle of the rink, but the puck can’t go into the net because the net has fallen over, he completely understands what I mean.
It’s not his fault; the piece on the other end isn’t accepting his input, and is therefore preventing him from completing his task. Easy-peasy. Wait until the distant server is fixed, then try again. Once he grasped that idea, his anxiety lessened and we got the time we needed to get our work done.
In many respects, this is why we have directors and Chief Tech Officers in business. It’s not that we’re the highest-certified techs in the department. In fact, it’s usually a disaster to take a hard core tech and promote him or her out of production and into senior management because they can’t communicate well with their new peers.
One of our critical functions, as senior IT leaders, is to translate what the lads in the engine room are saying to what the gentlemen on the wardroom can understand. You have to max out your communication skills in order to be successful overall.
Further: one of the best methods for maximizing your effectiveness is to perform some preemptive research into the topics that your executives are currently “into,” with an eye towards how you can communicate a tech idea to them in terms of their interests.
 In my experience, in my industry; all normal disclaimers apply. Your mileage may vary, consult your doctor, offer void in Montana, etc.
 Although when you find such a patient, open executive, pour training money into them! Send them to every tech course you can afford, on your dime, so that you can slowly convert them into a fellow nerd.
 No, I have no idea why. I’ve always suspected that he’s secretly a Canadian, but I can’t prove it.