Leadership

Geeks and communication skills


It is a commonly held belief that geeks do not need to be able to communicate outside of Nerdland. In fact, it is an outright expectation. Programmers who gets nervous around pretty girls, systems administrators who cannot give a presentation to more than two people at a time, and DBAs that stutter unless they are discussing Dungeons and Dragons are what many people envision when they think of IT professionals. These are all common stereotypes of IT professionals. Sad to say, many IT professionals buy into this idea, and sometimes even actively encourage it!

I am not going to pretend to be surprised by this. Up until the age of sixteen or so, reaching Level 4 as a bard seemed more important than reaching first base with a woman. Weird Al Yankovich was "romantic" in my mind and a "nice wardrobe" meant a closet full of shirts from hardware and software vendors, preferable ones with multiple years' worth of pizza stains on them to prove my "authenticity". I thought that if people did not understand me, it was because they were stupid, not that I was unable to communicate with them.

Thankfully, I changed. Mostly. I still think Weird Al is funny on occasion, and the ratty shirts are still there (though they now tend to be Metallica and Mr. Bungle shirts from my post-ubergeek years). The biggest change was that my communication skills improved significantly. I took classes in high school such as AFJROTC and Mock Trial that taught me how to speak to an audience, with or without notes. My classes in college (I will merely admit that I double majored in "cannot-get-a-job-ology" which is code for "the liberal arts") involved few tests, but endless amounts of paper writing. What few tests there were tended to be essay questions. In other words, I was learning a lot about communication skills.

What does this have to do with the IT industry? Plenty. If you want to know why your manager seems to be a "grinning idiot" with no clue what your job is instead of someone with technical skills, take a look at what that manager brings to the table. That manager is very likely to have an MBA or maybe an MIS degree. Their external learning is probably in "risk management" or Six Sigma, not the Cisco or Red Hat certification you just earned. The manager's job is to interface between "the suits" and the IT people. The manager does not actually need to know how to do your job if you communicate your needs to him properly. What manager does need to know is how your job relates to the business.

It has been my experience since I started blogging about IT issues on TechRepublic, that the majority of the time when I receive heavy criticism, it is because I failed to write clearly and properly communicate my message. Sure, there have been instances where someone climbed all over me for using one bad example or analogy in a 3,000 word post, or where someone was obviously unable to comprehend the topic at hand. But by and large, when I receive negative feedback, it is my own fault for not writing clearly.

At my current position, my manager does not understand much programming (he knows some VBA), systems administration, database administration, networking, computer repair, or any of the other tasks I do. He knows how to run the company, deal with customers, and so on. He really does not need to know the gritty details of what the project is hung up on; he just needs to know how long the delay will be. He does not care what brand of motherboard I buy or what CPU I select; he needs to know the price and business justification for the expenditure.

Many of the IT people that I have worked with simply do not understand this. They fill a proposal with technical details, and expect the person reading it to understand the benefit of the proposal from the technical information. In other cases, they write an email that is littered with typos and spelling mistakes. These types of mistakes do not help the recipient to understand why they should approve your request or give your project more resources, or otherwise help you with whatever goal it is that you are trying to accomplish. Tailor your message for the audience. If the recipient is a technical person, make it technical. If they are a non-technical person, use language that a non-technical person can understand. As I often do for programs that I have written, I pass it through the "Mom test." In other words, I ask my mother to review it. She is about as non-technical as it gets. If my mother can understand what I have written to the point where she can make an educated business decision, then it is a good communication.

Many of the IT people out there seem to think that this is degrading. These are the same types of IT people who make web sites that only display in one particular web browser, or require you to go find some funky external library, or insist that you recompile the application yourself without providing any documentation. These are the IT people that may be excellent at their jobs, but are hated by everyone that their job touches. You do not need to go this route. No one will criticize you or complain if you learn to effectively communicate with non-technical people. In fact, they will appreciate you even more. My experience has been that improved communications skills leads to better opportunities in life and in my career. If a manager is evaluating two candidates for a promotion, they are more likely to pick someone with less technical skills who communicates well than a more technical person who does not communicate well. Why? Because the person with good communication skills is able to show that they know what they are talking about, while the person without those skills simply cannot be understood.

If you feel that your communication skills may be lacking, there are things that you can do to help them improve. One suggestion is to read more books and magazines. If you already ready books and magazines, escalate the difficulty level of your readings or try reading about topics that you are not familiar with. I have found that crossword puzzles are great tools to expand your vocabulary. Try your hand at writing something, whether it be short fiction, how-to articles, or poetry. If you can, try to go to new places or talk to different people; sometimes we find ourselves in cliques with a shared mindset that makes it difficult to learn how to communicate outside of that group. There are lots of different ways to improve communications skills, but at the end of the day, they all amount to "increase the frequency of your communications, the diversity of the mediums, and the people that you communicate with."

J.Ja

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

15 comments
atul_shinkar
atul_shinkar

Worth reading... Thanks for the post J.Ja :)

deity_chooch
deity_chooch

I whole-heartedly agree with you on this point. I have long been touting the need for effective communication, even when it's just a quick conversation between good friends. I am very detail-oriented and enjoy using the correct technical jargon when explaining things with others. When explaining things to people I know are "non-techy" I still use these words, but explain them afterward in a way that I hope they understand. This technique doesn't always work though, as some people don't care what this is or how that works; they'd rather just get a quick run-down. In any case, effective communication is underrated in my opinion. After all, letters, words and sentences don't have a function until they mean something. They are simply tools to convey messages from one person to another.

Fregeus
Fregeus

Wow, very nice article. I've seen this often in our line of work, even here on TR. I've even suffered from it myself. I am more aware of it now and do my best to improve every day. I read a lot on psychology and communication and it has provided me with a lot of tips and tricks of the trade. What we deal with is sometimes so complex, its difficult to image it in non-technical terms.

stanb
stanb

IMHO the very best way to improve communication skills is by joining (and participating in ) a local Toastmasters group. This non-profit with world-wide membership has been around since 1924 but remains under the radar due to their less-than-aggressive marketing methods. The monthly Toastmasters magazine is worth the very minimal membership dues. Go http://www.toastmasters.org to find Clubs in your area. Stan

Jaqui
Jaqui

a slightly harder test than Bound4Doom's ]:) "Ken" is illiterate, and just has to have the latest tech toy, even though he can't figure out how to use it. [ Have you ever tried to decipher a "stream of conciousness" email litered with typos, with no punctuation? ] If he can use it after I explain it to him, then anyone can understand the information.

BOUND4DOOM
BOUND4DOOM

You have no idea how many times I have done this as well. If mom understands it then I know pretty much most people will. It has always been a skill of mine to explain things techy in a non techy way. Of course this doesn't always work out, I have been accused of being patronizing, which was not my intention. But I would still have them totally understand than not. Sometime mom will ask me to explain something techy to her and when I am done she just goes well now why didn't they just tell me that.

Justin James
Justin James

In the year-and-a-half since I first wrote this (it is my most popular post ever, I beleive, and undergoes a resurgence in popularity every 6 months or so), I have moved significantly up the org chart, and these skills are even more important to me now. I spend a lot of time bridging the gap between the technical folks and the business teams, and there is no way I could do that without just these types of skills! J.Ja

reshea
reshea

For me, the words from Justin's original post "Tailor your message for the audience." are key when a technically oriented presentation is about to take place. Rather than treating the 'non-technical' as 'not part of technical circle,' bring the 'non-technical' 'in' to the technical by offering explanations in a way that veer from the 'standard' technical explanation--Yet, are clear enough for all to understand. People will listen to you if they understand what it is you are attempting to say. I have used the 'deity_chooch' technique of using techie' terms and then explaining them--sometimes using metaphor. Reading and speaking to people outside of the 'technical' circle does indeed help. I am considering joining Toastmasters. I do have a 'hankering' to speak more effectively. --This cannot do anything but aid in getting to be an effective speaker.

malconcel
malconcel

Even though we can explain or try to tell a non-techie what he or she needs to do in laymans terms, the main thing is how you present it. If you raise your voice without noticing, you may find the person your dealing with feeling stupid or having a stupid look on the face. Reason, you just made them feel or look that way because of the tone of you voice. I know alot of techs that do that. We have to understand that not everyone knows how to deal with computers the way techs do. I lot of times I feel completely ignorant when I'm stumped with an issue. It's all about educating ourselves and others. Bottom Line.

Justin James
Justin James

I have been to a few Toastmasters meetings, and I really thought they were helpful! In high school, I took a culmulative total of 8 years of AFJROTC (4 years of double periods, I liked it a lot!), and we spent a lot of time on public speaking and other Toastmaster-type items, so Toastmasters did not have anything new for me. But for someone who has never had instruction or practice at those things, it is a miracle. J.Ja

FleetCommander
FleetCommander

I couldn't agree more. I've been a member of Toastmasters for ten years now, and it's been one of the biggest assets I have in my portfolio. When you speak in front of a Toastmasters group, you're talking to a group of people that are in the same boat you are--wanting to improve and practice public speaking skills. Every time you give a speech, you will receive an evaluation from another member, giving you ideas on what you need to work on and what you did well. There are even opportunities to practice leadership skills in Toastmasters clubs. I've held several club offices, as well as serving as an Area and Division Governor. Even if you speak well, Toastmasters would still be worth the time, money, and effort. The only way to improve on speaking skills is to practice, and this is the most wonderful environment to do it. If you've got any questions, go out to the toastmasters web site at www.toastmasters.org or drop me an e-mail at fleetcom@mindspring.com. Jason A Schulz

oldfield
oldfield

I used to use the spouse test, but now they know too much techy to be any use for this.

mikedyne
mikedyne

I find using analogies the best way to do it. For example, explaining the difference between RAM and a hard disk. I tell people to imagine they are doing research for a project. They go to the library to get said research. The shelves of the library is the hard drive, the study desk is your RAM and the dewey decimal system is like the MFT. This particular analogy helps me explain what RAM is, how it works, why computers speed up with more of it. What a HDD is. what defrag is and how it works. The difference between quick and full formatting. Probably more things I can't think of right now!

RayJeff
RayJeff

I have a very soft voice. That and not being a very LOUD speaker has helped be an effective IT person. I have a very calming effect which helps alot. But, sometimes it's difficult to keep that calm voice when dealing with an irate user with their IT issue. So, I know my normal calm voice raises a bit. Even when trying to explain in layman's terms or in terms the user can understand, it's like there's still that language barrier. Or, if you even take the time to explain in detail, in the end, the user will say why didn't you explain it another way. it's like they are mad at you because you took the long 5 minute route when in actuality it would've taken 30 seconds?

FleetCommander
FleetCommander

Over the past couple of years, Toastmasters has updated its Communications and Leadership tracks by introducing some new communications manuals and leadership opportunities. It might be worth checking out again! Jason

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