No, it really is you

As a techie, I am sometimes told that I “speak a different language” than “ordinary/normal/regular” people. To this, I usually respond by giving thanks for the backhanded compliment, as I appreciate being considered more than ordinary/normal/regular. Second, I may say “just because I am Greek, doesn’t mean I speak it.” Finally, my new and go to response is “No, I’m speaking English. You are choosing not to understand me.” How can I say this? It’s simple. I’m pretty smart – smart enough to know when I am speaking in an overly technical fashion, and when I’m not. Here’s an example. Just last week, I was meeting with a client, and I asked the following question during a discovery interview, speaking about their technology needs:

“Which application is most important to your work?”

The response I received astounded me.

“This is difficult without an interpreter.”

I paused for a few seconds, giving it time to sink in. I struggled to conceal the shocked expression on my face. Hopefully I succeeded, but I can’t be sure. “This is difficult without an interpreter?” What had I asked that needed interpretation? It’s not as if I’d asked this person to tell me from which layer of the OSI model her network communications errors were originating, or accidentally slipped into Japanese just for kicks. I simply asked what application was most important to their work. If this individual had not understood the question, I would have expected a reply along the lines of “I’m not sure I understand.” Maybe they didn’t know that by “application” I meant “program you run on your computer.” But their response indicated that they felt I, being a techie, had immediately dropped into the secret mumbo-jumbo lingo that only we techies speak, and therefore this was going to be difficult “without an interpreter.” I was a little offended by this.

I reviewed the question I had just posed, and the response I’d been given. Determining that I was still speaking English, I re-phrased the question.

“What program that you run is most important? So, if you were without it, you couldn’t do your job?”

The client went on for a while telling me that they’re all important, each one is different, and it would be much easier if they were still using paper. This went on for a minute until I finally got that their bookkeeping package was most important. Around that time, I realized I was going to need an interpreter of my own, but not “Tech/English, English/Tech.”

Complex Network Diagram
Complex Network Diagram

Another recent example is when I drew a network diagram, seen here at right, while meeting with a client, in order to explain how the new network we were putting in would work. While the individual with whom I was meeting said nothing to indicate comprehension or lack thereof during our meeting, I was later told that my diagrams are “hard to follow.” I was trying to show how this company has three locations, and how they have dedicated lines from the branch offices to the main, as well as virtual private network (VPN*) connections as backups.

Oh my God, I used an acronym! Well, that does it. You drop one three-letter abbreviation and all hope is lost. Obviously I’m speaking WAY too technically for any normal person to understand now.

Somehow, when people hear ASAP, MIA, FYI, and LOL, those are perfectly acceptable. But if you dare throw in just one reference to VPN, UTM, or VoIP, even if you define what they mean (Virtual Private Network, Unified Threat Management, or Voice over Internet Protocol), you’re obviously speaking a different language.

Back to the diagram, if this can be made less technical, then please tell me how. If it cannot, then please accept my proposal without asking for details on how things work.

Last night I went to a hockey game. It was the second one I’d been to in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a full game on TV. You don’t need an interpreter to conclude that I was fairly unfamiliar with the rules. But when the referee called “high sticking” and “off sides,” and my friends explained what that meant, I did not stop them and say “whoa, whoa, hey! Let’s hold off on this jargon here.” I listened and digested what they said. Amazingly, I understood what was going on, except why the home team seemed unwilling or unable to take a bloody shot at the goal for almost the entire game – that still eludes me. A few weeks ago, when meeting with my surgeon to discuss the upcoming operation, when he used words like “impingement” and “bursitis” I did not say “hey, get a nurse in here who speaks English.” I asked “what’s that?” Satisfied with the answers, we moved on.

I used to stress over this a lot, trying to determine what it was that I’d said or done wrong. But now, I don’t feel that way any more. Dialogs are, by definition, two-way, and both parties have an obligation to participate. That means not just the “techie,” but the not-so-techie party as well. If you immediately shut off, you are not fulfilling your end of the conversation, and there’s very little hope that the other party can pick up the slack.

In conclusion, yes, I certainly can and do speak technically; my job requires it. However, I can tell when I am and when I’m not, and do my best to speak as non-technically as possible. Your job is to not shut down as soon as my lips start moving, give me the benefit of the doubt, and listen to the words coming out of my mouth before deciding that you need an interpreter.

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