Education

Could you explain technology to a non-IT person?

If an interviewer asks you to explain a technical topic like you would to a non-IT person, here's what he's really trying to find out.

I read somewhere that the best way to judge a job candidate's technical knowledge is to ask him or her to explain a technical concept in layman's terms. That sounded like a very simple statement at the time, but I have to admit that there's a lot of truth to it.

Think about the best teacher you ever had in school -- it was probably a person who introduced you to complex concepts by first relating them to something you could readily relate to or understand. Now, of course, you can argue that, as an IT pro, your job is not to teach people (unless you're in the training sector).

But you do have to be able to put your theoretical know-how into real work. When an interviewer asks you to explain a technical topic like you would to a non-IT person, what he is looking for is if you can see how technical tools and practices relate to the business as a whole. You can't sell technology to end-users and executives unless you can effectively explain to them why it is needed.

On a broader scale, this is a form of IT/business alignment -- a term you've heard so many times in the last decade that it has become jargon-ish. But it is important, and potential employers are looking to see if you have the ability to understand the business and translate technology to shareholders.

In a blog I wrote last year, I recommended analogies that can be used to explain complex concepts. Be sure to read the member comments following the piece for some great examples of analogies that work.

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About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

104 comments
chuck
chuck

Explaining Defragment to a non-IT person: Imagine a 4 X 8 piece of plywood, with a 2 inch border all around it, laying flat on the floor (Your hard drive). You dump a large bucket of marbles onto the plywood (Your data or information). Analyze (look at the whole mess) The marbles are scattered all over the plywood and you can see the spaces between all of them. Defragment (Organize) You lift one end of the plywood and all the marbles roll to the opposite end, neatly organized together with no blank spaces between them. Result: Now we have a large area of the plywood to dump on more marbles :)

jck
jck

It is a part of everyday life. Whether you're talking about: an impingement of the AC... a corrupt group policy... meanings for the resistor color striping... etc etc It's when you have to talk to a technical person from a different derivation of the same base technology that can sometimes get difficult. It is almost like being a translator sometimes. Talking to lay people just means using lots of analogies, comparisons, etc.

RayJeff
RayJeff

I haven't read any of the postings yet. The question itself isn't so easy to answer. The reason why, because people are human and one person will always respond differently from another. In the land of "Explaining to non-IT people", not every non-IT person is the same. Because of the fact that whehn a non-IT person has an issue with IT, for whatever reason; be it, having a problem with a computer or researching how to use the Magic jack because someone told them that it would be good for them to have, the common denominator is being anxious and being impatient. They want it right here, right now. But, some are willing to be patient, because as we all know that you can't always sum up I.T. in one second. Out of my experience with explaining to non-IT persons, I've had difficulty with one person. And the problem, in the beginning, was that she compared me to other IT friends of her's that may have explained a similar or same concept, but to her it was more simplified. And when I tried getting her to tell me what she was told, then the I started understanding why she had some much difficulty understanding what I was saying. It came down to a difference in backgrounds. My IT background is different from her friends, which comes down to me speaking one dialect of IT and the friends speaking other dialects of IT. So, when you have that to deal with, it's difficult to explain something to an non-IT person, when they feel that they have some knowledge anyway and think because you don't explain a concept in the same way as another, you don't know what you are talking about. The question of can you explain technology is a valid question, but to use it as a measure of being able to be successful at a job...I don't know; it's just not that simple.

MavMin2
MavMin2

Yes, I can. I am quite fluent in Redneck and Down Home and that has been one of my greatest assets. I put the cookies on the table where people can eat them. Even if they do not completely understand they trust me because I tried to explain without looking down my nose at them like they were cretins or pests like some of my "GURU" counterparts.

Gonzalo34
Gonzalo34

It's always a hard task, only for gifted people. I have to do it all the time, with mixed success. You're continuously tuning your technical level of conversation to the customer's background, walking on the thin line between sounding too techy -you can tell by their yawning faces, or offending them if you come up with some example with apples and pears.

crispydj
crispydj

It all comes down to how well you know the product to be able to break it down simple terms and use analogy's during a explanation to non IT person. Whether you are in a back room isolated from non IT people or have contact a day to day basis, these skills are vital in a professional and on a personal level. This is because I'm sure everybody has friends and family who are non IT and do have problems with their pc or other equipment. Also visual aids help a lot if possible depending if it's face to face or over the phone. Using remote desktop software such as VNC allows users to see what you do as you explain and is very helpful.

efehling57
efehling57

If you've ever worked in the Help Desk department, you know how difficult it can be to explain yourself in terms the user will understand. Especially true for remote support over the phone.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I was that "guy" in a number of venues. I was hired to represent the tech guys on several teams in their talks with management. Not being a geek really helped,and my process was just like your average non-IT person.

dratman
dratman

Seriously. Don't jump to conclusions. I can explain everything. That woman was not some bimbo I picked up in a bar. She is my psychic! She was reading my chest hairs. And yes, I am very good at this. I can explain almost anything to almost anyone (seriously now).

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I have to do this daily. Many of my clients are completely non-technical and have no concept of even AC and DC voltage. But some are exceptional programmers and chemists and could leave me in the dust when it comes to their areas of expertise so I humble myself and try my best.

dbecker
dbecker

We all should understand that our clients do have difficult challeges [I'm from IT and I'm here to help you!]: If you have the empathy and can share the viewpoint of the customer, they will sense it. Even if you don't do a perfect job explaining something, they may ask questions to help you explain it -- they may really want to know. It is incumbent upon us to make the effort to care that our clients understand the mechanisms of technology *appropriately* so they can get their work done, and not view the technology as some sort of magic requiring mystical rituals. When I build a new product for my clients, I'm always the first user of it. You would be amazed how much easier a product developed that way is, than the one that takes the armchair approach of high concept and reduces it to explicitly correct objects using arcane procedures for the client to try to do his or her work using it. We get that from Microsoft. Why do we have to pass it on to our customers? [Our time track has no documentation or help key because it is so "intuitive" -- heck if we can figure it out -- it keeps changing every week! I think I'll try chicken entrails or runes to make it work this time.] As techs we're here to help people get their work done -- just as management is supposed to help us get our work done.

gksmith2002
gksmith2002

For those of us who work with people/clients/customers/co-workers who are not as "geek" as us, this is what I call a "teaching - learning" opportunity. This is the moment to get the user to check a few basic things before calling the help desk or desktop support person. You talk above them and their eyes will glaze over. You talk on their level and most people are receptive and want to resolve a problem sooner then later.

dbecker
dbecker

Just how does one explain Systems Programming for IBM z/OS to IT Management which only understands the desk top and insists that Mainframe is going to go away decade after decade without a clue as how to do it with a customer who doesn't want the mainframe to go away because of stability? [The Director of Budget and Finance notices how unstable all the other platforms are and staunchly resists going to one which has to be rebooted during the day when, like, say, VMware locks up.] The customer understands System Programming better than IT Management does. So how to explain it to IT Management, eh?

pgit
pgit

People are always asking me questions that indicate they don't understand what a hard drive isn't and what RAM is. For instance they use the word "memory" when refering to a hard drive. The simple analogy is RAM is the space on your desk and a hard drive is a file cabinet. The bigger the top of your desk the more stuff you can "open" and lay out on it. You fetch those documents and stuff from the filing cabinet, which is a rather slow process, you have to get up, walk over, rifle through it. Of course a bigger hard drive is adding more filing cabinets, and adding RAM is like buying a bigger desk on which to work. And it's a lot faster to grab something else that's already laying on your desk, than it is to have to keep getting up to go to the file cabinet, including to put stuff away in order to free up more space on your desk for the new docs and such. So whadda ya need? More desk space or more filing cabinets? Yesterday it was filing cabinets, I cloned a system from an 80 GB to a 500GB drive for doctor who was beginning to scan old paper docs into the computer and quickly filled it up. RAM as cheap as it is these days it's an easy sell. People believe it'll speed things up because they can see the analogy. Of course the results are always there...

jaona
jaona

I understand it but i cannot explain it. please can you give some tips, so that i can be perfect.

rosen.len
rosen.len

As a person who got into IT from a non-technical background (my degree is in Islamic Studies and Medieval History) I have found my role to be the individual who identifies customer pain and marries IT solutions to solve the pain. That means not just explaining complex IT solutions to customers, but explaining customer problems to IT professionals who often put solutions in play without understanding the customer's perspective.

leorubio59
leorubio59

Excellent item and all comments ... I will share with you how you deal with ... all professionals think they know it all (and it's true ... in his profession ..), but we are IT professionals or have a profession that is being a tool for those most professions because no other technology professions would be very complicated, right?. So I think the best way to talk to a person NOT IT is placed on your site or in your shoes, think that is a bit like an accountant, economist, salesman, manager, etc ... Our responsibility is to have and / or open a good channel of communication. Conclusion: Do not expect them to understand us, but we do understand ... example, talk to an accountant with accounting terms, with a physician in terms of medicine, etc ...

tfox
tfox

The best IT consultant/client relationships have good communication between the two. The ability to explain technical concepts in an understandable way using analogies and ideally in terms of the client's world, gives the client the ability to get the most value from the consultant's expertise to make the right decisions for their environment.

jbrosch@carolina.rr.com
jbrosch@carolina.rr.com

This make alot of sense. Reminds me of the adage to really learn something - teach it.

shilico
shilico

Nice point and it applies to every technical profession. In my languaje we say, "explain it with pears and apples " The closest case for me is my wife. When she gets tecnical problems with her PC or internet connection, I use analogies to explain her, for example, why the DNS servers are not resolving addresses even she has internet connection and the little two PCs icon is flashing and the router too, but no web site is reachable. Trying to explain her why a video is now slowest than before is also a challenge, because she doesn't imagine why if before she could got it faster. I use the highway analogy, traffic is jammed, too many cars in the way to the beach.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

I work as a support tech for the Florida Department of Agriculture, in the Division of Animal Industry. We regulate all kinds of industries dealing with animals: pet shops, hog farms, chicken ranches, horse breeders, etc. I support about 130 users of which fifty or so are field inspectors. Our field inspectors are farmers, ranchers, and cowboys. These men and women are not dumb; they simply have not had much exposure to computers and their quirks. Over the years with this outfit, I've learned to use lots of analogies, ranging from cars to guns to birthing a colt. I've also learned a lot from my field people about farming, and caring for animals. This has helped me to relate my expertise to their expertise. It's definitely a two-way street -- or if you prefer, input as well as output. Now that I'm approaching retirement, some of my friends out in the field are asking me to try get as my replacement another computer geek who can talk redneck with them.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

I believe that you start learning a subject in depth when you try to teach it to others. But I have seen people who were good at tech who couldn't explain it to others.

mark the leader
mark the leader

i would like to know if any one has any knowledge on a particular software that would allow me to take physical number from a pc screen then abstractly input put it in to a second pc and allow the algorithm to see where pc 1 one is going example pc 1 is out puting numbers at random 3 numbers column one, two, three example from 0-9 0-9 0-9 is there a computer program out there that would allow me to in from screen and manuliy in put it in to pc 2 and allow the pc to figure where or what will be the next set of number to show up based on the pass in put from pc 1 so if any one can help please call me or set a link to me thank u

mdw097
mdw097

I had a customer whose employees have learned to read while running our app. Telling them to left click on an icon on their screen can be an interesting experience at times.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

In my dealings, some end users want you to explain the issue and some just want it fixed and really don't care about the process.

pgit
pgit

Remind IT exactly why they have a job then. If the customer understands, and 'the customer is always right,' then management needs to get a grip on reality or maybe brush up the resumes? I have one client that makes money hand over fist, the entire operation runs on a pentium 150 (doesn't have USB for eg) running one app under DOS 6.22. This person came to me with this machine saying it dawned on her she ought to have some kind of back up in case this thing ever died. It's a miracle the thing hadn't already. It had never been cleaned and had the original fan still running on the CPU. I tried all manner of "upgrades" including running it on an XP machine in a VM. She hated it. (wouldn't take over the whole screen) But she doesn't have the original install media (floppies, ca 1994) so we're limited on options, good thing you can copy/paste these old 16 bit apps and they'll run. Anyhoo, we call that "achieving maximum utilization," which in fact she hasn't achieved yet, until that fan goes or something else gives up the ghost. Your IT management needs to be asked if they are in business to make money, or spend money. Because the good old IBMs are long paid for and still up to-and-doing the task, ergo they have to represent a higher return on original investment than anything they could conceivably purchase today, no? How about "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?" CFOs like that one.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

That is a great analogy for RAM. I teach college and the discussion of RAM always comes up and I use the following analogy. I ask the students to imagine that one of them has opened a restaurant in the area. The restaurant becomes the most popular restaurant in the area to the point where they have customers lined up around the building waiting to get in. I ask the students, what can the owner do to fix the issue. After getting blank stares for a moment, someone will answer "they can build a bigger restaurant." I then say adding more RAM means that your PC is the same. It allows you to handle more requests or customers.

Da Saint
Da Saint

only difference is I change the desk. I'll tell someone with very little RAM they have a TV tray on which to sort their work. They need to trade in the TV tray for a folding table with more room.

Da Saint
Da Saint

But you can be good. All through the posts you'll find a common thread - analogies. Each professional field has its own set of acronyms but EVERYBODY understands basic things like telephones and cars. Internet problems can be easily understood if you say there's no dial tone on your PC so it can't call out to the internet. Or, the website or email your sending doesn't have the right address or phone number it needs so it can't find where it's supposed to go. Basic maintenance is necessary to keep your car running. So computer problems can be compared to being out of gas, needs an oil change, the computers running fine but don't don't have the directions to get there, etc. Hope that helps!

edtaaffe
edtaaffe

I have a linkedin group for people who specialise in this particular skill and anyone interested in making a further contribution is very welcome at my blog www.thebridger.co.uk/blog Despite my commitment to speaking plain English, I do agree with the person who says we are alone amongst professions in being expected to do this. My doctor, accountant, lawyer, no effort whatsoever and no complaint from the clients either

nick
nick

I learnt more about first year Chemistry when I was tutoring first year students than I did when I was a student.

fluttervertigo
fluttervertigo

It sounds like you're describing a process for solving CAPTCHAs, more likely plaintext characters requiring some type of math; e.g., solving a simple math equation, etc. If this isn't the case, I'm dying to know what it's actually for.

GL44
GL44

If I understand your question correctly, you want a program to determine what the pattern of the numbers is the first machine is generating. The number of columns shouldn't make any difference. You can treat the columns as the number of positions in a single number. Again, if I understand your question, you then complicated it by making the numbers be generated on a random basis. If I could predict randomly generated numbers I could predict the next number on a roulette wheel and retire. So there is no program that will do that. If the numbers on the first program are not generated randomly then they will might some pattern. In that case, can I look at string of numbers in a pattern and guarantee what the next number will be? The answer is again no. To understand why, take a simple example. Suppose the string is "1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2," I might believe I can see a pattern and believe the next number is the number "3", but I can't be sure. Perhaps the pattern is a series as you gave me followed by the number "8" and then the series repeated and again followed by the number '8'. So you don't know if the "next" number is a "3" or an "8" or for that matter any other number. Or to be more specific, if the correct pattern is ?1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3? or ?1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,8? or ?1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,7?, etc. What you are trying to do is use inductive logic for prediction. You can't do that and be sure that you will get the correct results. Can you write a program that might be right 90% or 99% of the time? Probably, depending on what patterns were involved. But I don't know of any that would do that on a general basis for any set of numbers and any kind of pattern. Hope this helps.

darpoke
darpoke

I see the importance of being able to explain oneself in plain, clear English extends to more than just IT...

MavMin2
MavMin2

All the more reason enough for us to understand our blessing of having the education, experiences and opportunities we have been given and to be 'umble when working with those who have not shared our particular blessings though they have had their share of different blessings.

Sparticus_123
Sparticus_123

In my experience almost all Users just want it fixed and don't care why or how.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Don't get it .. are you telling us that DOS 6.22 will not run on a more powerful machine? As for running under XP and VM, just get a bigger monitor and 'white-out' the edges where it doesn't display.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Except that building a bigger restaurant involves adding more staff, amongst various other complexities. Adding RAM is much simpler. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Knowing how the car works is good to know for efficient driving, I guess (like I would know). Similarly, knowing how the hardware of a computer works is good for my job, even though I don't mess with hardware or software. As a an analyst it is extremely useful to be able to discern what processes can be implemented efficiently, and which are going to be costly. Les.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

At least for me. My driver's ed class included basic and advanced vehicle maintenance. But that was back when they still taught you more than how to aim the car...

Da Saint
Da Saint

I agree! Lots of times I talk folks out of a tech class and into an application class. *ANALOGY ALERT* - did you take a class on how to do tune-ups or brake jobs when you got your driver's license? It's nice to know how to do that but you don't have to know if all you'll ever do is drive to the same locations all the time. Learn what you want to do on the computer 1st - the tech stuff you'll pick up along the way.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I have numerous items in my life that just have to work but I have no idea how they work. Our end users are busy doing there jobs and have plenty to learn for what they are doing. For these users, technology is strictly a tool. How it works really doesn't matter to them and probably never will need to know.

pgit
pgit

Doesn't stop me from planting seeds though, I always try to get something across beyond what the customer is willing to entertain. I live for when the lights go on in someone's eyes. It's the "give a man a fish" vs "teach a man to fish" thing. There's almost always resistance but in a lot of cases there's a belated 'thank you.'

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

I'm thick-skinned. Takes me than telling me to stick my head-up-my-arse, to wind me up :-) Yes we are talking about different environments. Les.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

From your response, it appears you and I share an attitude about customer service. Our approach probably differs greatly, simply because we operate in different environments.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

I work with customers on a daily basis, and having the customer telling me what they do NOT want is NOT going to get my job done. I need to know what it is they want and the way to discover this is (often) to find out why they do not like alternatives. The customer rarely knows what they want (if they did I'd be out of a job - actually I am, but that's another story), and having them reject upteen solutions until I happen to pick a good one by accident is not an efficient way to do my job. What is it that is wrong? Is a very important question. Les. P.S. It helps if one reads the post being replied to, (but nevermind). I did not suggest changing the OS. My post was referring to changing the hardware, not the software.

pgit
pgit

The thing she didn't like was that in a VM it wouldn't go full screen. It didn't matter that with a bigger monitor she could have the dimensions actually be larger than they are with the present system. The simple fact there was a window and some desktop showing around the edge just threw her into a tizzy. Like Nick says, it ain't our call. We can only show them what is possible, but whatever the customer wants the customer gets. "Lip" isn't a service I provide. =) I did in fact demonstrate it on a huge monitor that rendered the app as large as it was on the old box or maybe even bigger. But she was fixated on the VM window. Oh well. She is no doubt being unreasonable. But I'm not about to tell her that, or say something like "what part of this don't you understand?" You'd be tempted in the face of such unreasonableness, but I have to remember this is a locally connected business leader. I can't afford anyone bad mouthing me in this small town, reputation is all the difference in an environment like this. In fact she thanked me and paid me for the work I did on her behalf, one thing I did do was make an identical clone of the hard drive which she can throw in line if the original dies. That's 100% more piece of mind than she had before.

MavMin2
MavMin2

there comes a time when it must be explained to the customer that at some point the way she likes it may cost more or be irreplaceable and that it would be advantageous to her upgrade. I have probably worked with some of the most anal retentive, never change, picky and picayune people on the planet over the years. Some I had to joke and cajole into the change, some had to deal with it because it came from a higher place on the food chain and some I just used my military background and charged the hill, made the change and told them to grow up. yes, indeed you have to know your limits and your customer but there are just times when you have to drag people kicking and sceaming into the 21st century and remember I am 57. I enjoy change to a point but find that even now and then I have to be drug into a change I would rather not make. Git'er done! Hooah!!!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The customer is paying him to make her happy. He tried to upgrade the OS and she didn't like the results. Regaredless of the reason, the customer didn't like the results of the upgrade. That is the end of that and we go back to the original equipment and configuration. [b]That's[/b] what customer service is all about. They decide what you provide. If you can't deal with it, stay in the back orifice.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

What didn't like the colour of the more powerful machine? What didn't the customer like? Les.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

and he cares about what his customer thinks.