Friday, September 2, 2011

Geeks and communication skills

Takeaway: 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 [...]

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.”

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