This year, SolarWinds started publishing a video series called “Geek Memories”, where the Head Geeks and other IT Professionals share flashbacks from their past, moments which defined or exemplified their geekiness and showcased a lesson that we who have made our careers in technology can relate to.
One particular memory of mind appeared recently, and I wanted to share some additional thoughts about it. You can watch the video here.
It’s no secret that I love language. I collect words and phrases the way some people collect colorful shells at the beach. I love the connection between language and culture, how one defines the other and vice-versa.
In looking back at the way “Net Use” has become a secret phrase between my wife and me, I realized this is a phenomenon that all IT Pro’s should be aware of and use to their advantage.
What I mean is that language is, first and foremost (and perhaps only?) a bridge between two parties. The golden rule of communication is not “communicate unto others as you would have them communicate to you”. Instead it is “Communicate unto others as they want (need) to be communicated to”.
Saying “Well, I prefer email, and therefore I will only use email to communicate to the other teams.” is as poor a choice as saying “Well, I prefer to speak French, and therefore I will be using French in all of my conversations.”
That idea applies to everything from the mode of communication (email, sms, face to face, phone) to the length of the conversation to your use of graphics or not. You must Know Thine Audience and tailor your information accordingly. After all, you wouldn’t ask Notepad to open and edit a Photoshop file. Don’t ask your (accounting) customer to speak fluent OSI model.
This concept also means avoiding un-necessary jargon when possible, or defining it (repeatedly if necessary) when it’s unavoidable. This is such a simple thing and yet I find IT pros who think this is tantamount to lobotomizing the entire discipline they’ve devoted years to becoming experts in. Trust me on this one – not using your favorite buzzword or acronym doesn’t make you any less of an expert. In fact, the real experts are the ones who can explain a concept, design, or plan without resorting to any specialized words. Don’t believe me? Check out “Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words” by Randal Munroe (creator of XKCD) for a fantastic (if comical) example.
Recently, Seth Godin commented on the comic that inspired that same book. In that essay, Godin points out that using words, even if they exceed the 1,000 most commonly used words (or the 20,000 word vocabulary most of us have) is a one of the things that identifies us as a true professional.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m not talking about whether or not you know a word, command, programming function, etc. I’m talking about whether you can put those words into context for the listener. Can you give listener a meaningful frame of reference so that they remember the ideas you are sharing because you’ve made them relevant, have impact, and connect to their own experience?
Which brings me to my next point. The story about me and my wife and “Net Use” is cute because our experience informed the phrase with meaning. I’m not saying that you should go to work and start using arcane technical commands in place of common every day ideas (“hey boss, grep s/hungry/lunchtime/”). Instead, I believe we need to understand and appreciate how experience informs understanding. It’s not enough to give a definition of RAID1+0 or EIGRP or hybrid cloud. It’s far better to allow people to experience those things in some way and then provide the term to describe the experience they are having.
As Thomas LaRock said in an article titled “Telling Ain’t Training: How to transfer IT Skills”:
“Having knowledge is good. Sharing knowledge is better. But applying knowledge and sometimes adapting it to other scenarios is the best way to train yourself when it comes to new technologies”
That’s not always possible, but you would be surprised how many opportunities there are to link an experience to a concept and term. It is about, as professional educators say, finding ‘teachable moments’. Sometimes those moments come during a weekly department lunch-and-learn. Sometimes you can turn a routine problem ticket into a chance to say “Hey, people, check this out. I want to show you something I see all the time.” And sometimes the opportunity comes in the middle of a Sev1 emergency call. You need to take the opportunities as they present themselves.
It takes practice to find the right balance for your personality and work environment, but if you are able to do this consistently, you will find your ideas are better understood, your initiatives get more buy-in, and elusive tasks like “cross-training your coworkers” becomes infinitely easier.
After all, you are now speaking a common language.