On this episode of the Third Paddle Podcast, we talk about how to communicate with techies (IT staff and technical freelancers like web developers).
We all know communication is one of the more important soft skills to have. But how do you talk to someone whose skills and perspective you might not understand? We’ll talk about how techies think, a techie’s work environment, and how gender plays a role.
Researched and hosted by Jennifer McFarland.
Listen to the Third Paddle
Segment 1: How techies think
In this segment, we are talking about the work process and thinking that goes into doing technical work, and why that may present communication challenges.
People who work in the IT world spend a significant amount of time looking at things systemically. The world of technology is a system.
Let’s look at it in a different context. Think of it as an ecosystem. For example, in the physical world, an ecosystem “is the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships in a particular unit of space” (Britannica). It’s like fish live in the ocean, and get eaten by bigger fish.
When there are problems with an ecosystem — like bees and frogs dying inexplicably — it means there’s something wrong with the system as a whole. The reason scientists are so concerned with bees and frogs dying are the bees and frogs live in the same ecosystem as us. And we don’t want to die.
It’s All About Systems Thinking
Admittedly, the stakes aren’t as high for a technical professional. The process is the same. When somebody is doing development work, for the system to work you have to be thinking not only about what somebody sees but you also have to think about everything that is going on behind the scenes.
For example, when somebody looks at a Web site and clicks on a buy button, it’s the developer’s job to make sure the payment goes to the payment processor, updates customer accounts, and takes the customer to the next step in the process — without slowing things down or missing any steps.
If something goes sideways, sometimes things blow apart, and it takes a long time to trace what happened and prevent it from happening again.
When things go wrong, IT staff will immediately go into troubleshooting mode, at the granular level and seek to solve the root problems.
This brings us to one of the communication challenges.
In general, technical people want specifics.
They want to know what happened, when, and why. You don’t understand why the customer database is erased. It all happened so fast. When the screen went blank, you pounded every key on your keyboard.
To no avail. This is of no use to a technical support person. They want to know as much detail as possible because it will help them solve the problem.
If you don’t know the specifics, it can make you feel stupid. You’re not stupid; it’s just another way of thinking.
Technical people work in precision. To create a system or solve an issue it’s important to be as precise as possible. In my work with companies, I often serve as the bridge between the technical and non-technical staff. It’s essential for the nontechnical staff to be as specific as possible about the desired outcomes because technical people feed off of data.
I also contend that a good technical person does not need to rely on abstract technical jargon to get their point across. Nor do they need to correct and interrupt nontechnical people while they are communicating their needs.
Techies Need to Adapt their Communication to the Audience
I believe that relying on this form of communication is a dead end — not only for the project but also for your career. People respect technical expertise. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that we are all subject matter experts in something.
And if we discount the opinions or needs of someone because they are not using the appropriate “jargon,” you are not serving anyone — except for your ego. And your ego ain’t paying the bills.
And businesses are taking notice. Computer Weekly puts it in the simplest terms: “Someone who wants to know how a particular technology will benefit their business wants to hear about it in business terms, which is why ITers need to understand commercial issues.”
The article goes on to suggest that technical professionals take courses in business and management.
I couldn’t agree more. What’s missing for most nontechnical people is why something is important. Why should they care? Staying completely technical about the matter may make you feel smart, but it’s not winning any points with management or your client.
At the same time, nontechnical people need to set up a meeting that allows for the presentation of needs and issues alongside ample space for questions to enable technical people to get to the details they need to get the job done.
Now that you know how techies think Let’s move on to the next segment, a techie’s work environment and how it affects communication.
Segment 2: Techie Work Environment
We’ve talked a little about how techies think. How the work is extremely detail-oriented.
Now, let’s talk about the work environment that helps techies thrive so they can address projects and issues most efficiently.
In Inc’s article, Understanding Geeks, A Field Guide to Your Tech Staff, explains the environment perfectly:
If there’s one common characteristic of an ideal techie workplace, it’s darkness. It’s not that geeks are depressed. Multiple monitors bombard users with a lot of light already; adding overhead fluorescents or superbright halogens would be a recipe for migraines and madness. A small desk lamp, perhaps, is all the light most geeks can comfortably handle while at the keyboard. A dim, cave-like environment also helps programmers focus and tune out distractions; often, headphones are used to get even deeper into the zone.
Sounds sooooo welcoming, doesn’t it? And so true — many of the techies I know remove or block fluorescents because of migraines.
Why is this the Ideal Work Environment?
Technical people need the time and space to work through complex problems. It’s quiet work. It requires heavy concentration, and for long stretches, it requires not talking to another human being. The headphones are on if for no other reason than to cancel sound. Technical people are testing assumptions and building a backend strategy that is every bit as complicated as any marketing plan you’ve ever laid your eyes on.
That’s why communicating with technical staff early in the process is so vital to your organization. They can tell you things you didn’t know were possible. They can also dash your hopes and dreams in a heartbeat.
Sometimes the last people to know about anything is the technical person. They’re hard to talk to, and they say no a lot. They say no because they know how everything is connected or not connected. The main reason to talk to techies early is that it takes a long time to get things done. Sometimes the things that sound “so simple” are the most complicated. And there’s a lot of coordination when we start talking about projects of any scale.
But I get it. Technical people can be pretty crabby. I think a lot of it has to do with what it takes to be an effective problem-solver.
It’s Hard to Get in the Zone
Sometimes it takes HOURS to get into the zone. That place where you’re getting your groove on, and you’re getting a lot done. And if you’re in the teamwork environment, the last thing that you want is someone to interrupt you after you’ve gotten deep down into the weeds and started figuring things out.
I’ve spent half of my work life as an artist and the other half in tech, and the parallels are uncanny. Believe it or not, behind all that jargon and logic it can be creative work.
The sweet spot for getting a lot accomplished in either field is creative solitude, completely undisturbed. I’ve had similar feelings when I’ve gotten a ‘runner’s high’ or deep into a CrossFit workout. I’ve never thought of it like that before, but there’s probably an endorphin rush when you get deep in the creative problem-solving space.
And it’s at that precise moment that the phone rings or someone comes into your cubicle, with a “Hey, hey can you help with this right now?”
The worst is when it’s not essential or a non-issue, and it takes you away from higher priority tasks. Mostly because it took you so damn long to get there.
That’s why in highly functioning IT departments there’s a process for reporting issues and starting projects. It helps to protect front-line technical staff so you can maximize their productivity. The same is true of a freelancer — your technical person might not answer the phone or reply to texts or emails because something came up.
It’s hard to balance, and we need to show each other a little grace in our communication.
Now that you know how techies think Let’s move on to the next segment, how gender plays a role in communicating with IT staff and technical freelancers.
Segment 3: Gender and Communication
Gender is perhaps one of the biggest, most frustrating obstacles to communicating with IT staff and technical freelancers.
Let’s look at the numbers:
- According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology “Women, especially women of color, are essentially “absent” from technology innovation. In 2017, 26% of the computing workforce were women, and less than 10% were women of color. (5% were Asian, 3%were African-American, and 1% were Hispanic.)
- According to the Harvard Business Journal, only 8% of venture capitalists are women. Research shows that venture capitalists are more likely to invest in people who share the same gender or race. That could explain why there aren’t a lot of tech startups founded by women — it’s more difficult for women to get funded.
- The Wall Street Journal reported that Female employees at startups own 47 cents for every dollar of equity a male employee owns
- There is a significant body of anecdotal evidence that women leave tech jobs because of management, the work environment, lack of advancement — or a combination of all three. I certainly faced all three in the work environment I left before starting my business.
One of the reasons I dedicate my business primarily to helping women-owned businesses make better technology decisions is because of the shoddy treatment they’ve received at the hands of my male counterparts. And, no doubt, because of the shoddy treatment I received as well.
There are Legit Gender Differences
But we live in an environment — particularly in tech — where women are often talked over, and when we stand up for a project or an approach we are often called ‘strident’ or ‘bitchy’ rather than strong, powerful and knowledgeable (which is how our male counterparts are praised). Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In talks about this nurture vs. bitchy paradigm women navigate in the working world.
The simplest way to improve communication between men and women is to hire more women and people of color to technical positions. Using hiring practices that evaluate candidates based on skill in a gender-blind environment, and creating work environments that encourage hiring and retaining people of all genders and races — that is what the top, innovative companies need to be measuring.
The data is out there. The more diverse a workforce, the more successful the company is.
Many of the gender-related communication issues arise because tech is an insular environment.
When I researched articles for this podcast, I was astounded by the ‘advice’ given to aid in communication.
This is not a one-way street, gentlemen.
Stop interrupting us. And women, stop letting men interrupt us. Our words are just as valuable, and we need to start acting like it.
I will never forget the time a male technical counterpart I’d just met called me “Jenny” in a meeting. Unless you’re my husband or you’ve known me since the 1970s, you’re not allowed to call me Jenny. It was clear from the tone and condescending look on his face it was intended make me diminutive, his junior, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
It was all I could do not to launch over the table and punch him in the face. Instead, I smiled and channeled by anger into personal power so I could get what I wanted.
And I did.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Smart women want to be treated fairly and have the same opportunities to advance. Just like men.
We don’t need to lose our femininity or bend our communication to cater to techies — whether it’s an enterprise project or a woman business owner hiring a technical service provider.
We need to bridge our communication differences by meeting in the middle.
That’s something we all deserve.
Ecosystem definition: https://www.britannica.com/science/ecosystem
When Women Talk Techie To Tech Men – Keep These Techniques In Mind: https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2018/01/26/when-women-talk-techie-to-tech-men-keep-these-techniques-in-mind/#3cca9e1a4d64
Communication becomes a key skill for techies: https://www.computerweekly.com/feature/Communication-becomes-a-key-skill-for-techies
Understanding Geeks: https://www.inc.com/magazine/20071201/understanding-geeks.html
Pay Gap? For Women at Startups, the Equity Gap is Worse: https://www.wsj.com/articles/women-trail-men-in-size-of-equity-stakes-in-startups-1537282800
National Center for Women & Information & Technology: https://www.ncwit.org/
Jen McFarland, Is complete gender parity in tech companies actually a good goal? What if women are simply less interested in tech?: https://www.quora.com/Is-complete-gender-parity-in-tech-companies-actually-a-good-goal-What-if-women-are-simply-less-interested-in-tech/answer/Jennifer-McFarland-21
The Other Diversity Dividend: https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-other-diversity-dividend
Women are leaving tech and management is responsible: https://code.likeagirl.io/women-are-leaving-tech-and-management-is-responsible-a6187a4d5d81