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Business Tech - Talking the Talk


Back in High School, I volunteer taught Special Ed. After I left college, I taught online. I've spoken at user groups, conferences, and for the last six years, I've taught Creative Writing at Otakon, which is an Amine event. I've also run internships.

I know that many tech people don't have those things on their resumes. I'd like to make the case that you should. Have a look at the job boards, have a chat with some of the talented recruiters in our industry, and you will see it: Excellent Written and Verbal Skills. It will be the second bullet point on pretty much every posting.

Seriously, go check out a few posting for nearly any profession, not just ours. People want communication skills when they hire. And, like every other skill, it requires practice.

Selfish Generosity

Now, to be clear, I don't write and teach solely to improve my skills. I genuinely want to help others. However, I find that writing and speaking professionally has given me hefty muscles in this critical department.

One of the tools that has helped me is a common phrase for the younger generation that my daughter, Danielle introduced me to: ELI5 (Explain Like I'm Five). Trying to simplify our ideas, taking the time to distill them down, helps us reassess what we do and see it with fresh eyes. I've killed off a lot of lazy programming habits by realizing that I might have to explain (and justify) my code to others.

To get another take on this perspective, try writing a description of one of your projects using this very targeted word processor: http://splasho.com/upgoer5/.

Know Your Audience

I had a terrible boss give me a wonderfully good bit of advice once. She said: "When some people say 'show me the data' they mean 'I've been in my field of business longer than you, give me the raw data.' However, some people mean 'show me your analysis, what do you think I'm paying YOU for?' And for others, draw a pie chart and don't put any numbers on it because that would confuse them."

Different people have different expectations of your role in the process. Sometimes the same person has different needs based on how time-crunched they are. You need to shift your story based on that. Delivering the entire story every time is a recipe for being ignored and avoided. If the goal is communication, that's one of the worst outcomes. Getting someone the five percent they need is better than being excluded from the conversation entirely.

Developing Techniques

Often, the amount of information a person is willing to accept is incompatible with the amount you do need to tell them. My best technique for handling this is to say: "The short answer is 'no.' The long answer is 'maybe.' Do you want to hear the long answer?"

Giving the other person a choice is called 'agency.' When someone elects to get the long answer, giving them the extra information isn't a war between you, it is an agreed outcome. It also allows them to accept the short answer for now and put off the longer answer for a better time. It is only agency if you let their choice matter. Never offer someone tofu or steak when all you intend to give them is tofu.

For some people, I've found sentences like: 'Yes, but it will cost a thousand dollars and take three months' leads them into requesting — demanding — more information. Time and money are business concepts. I could say 'Yes, but we have to refactor the code, infer the optional limits, and impose some very specific constraints which might not serve us in the future.' Instead, I offered the time and money expected to do it right. Doing that opens the door to a dialogue about expectations and outcomes.

The worst answer to most questions of the can-we-make-it-do-X sort is "Yes" or "No." Short, absolute answers often lead to one of you thinking that the equivalent of the Taj Mahal needs to be built while the other thinks the project is about standing up a pup tent.

Back to School

In most tech people's lives, the critical conversations happen in situations where we are not the seniormost person in the room. Communicating up is harder and has more consequences than communicating down. Teaching is communicating down.

I don't mean that to say that the teacher is above the student. I mean that people in a classroom… or internship… or conference… or reading a magazine… they are in a receiving mode. They are open to the conversation and expect you to bring forth something worth absorbing. In a meeting with your boss, you may not get that same sort of reception.

Spread the Word

If you don't have a venue for practicing this skill, tell your cat. Seriously. The habit of explaining works best with an interactive audience but if that's not available, make sure your dog knows all about variable naming. Have a deep conversation with your pet rabbit or snake about why you chose to use a dimensioned array instead of a dynamic one. Tell your children about the importance of indenting and commenting. In a pinch, open up to a potted plant about code reuse.

One of the benefits you'll get is that you'll learn how to be concise. In business, there's a concept called the elevator pitch. The idea is to convey enough in the time it takes to go up one floor that you'll get asked to keep talking. Once you learn how to pitch, your students will learn more. When you use a compelling pitch, your boss is more likely to listen.

Some people like to sing in the shower. I don't. I practice pitches in the bath. It's quiet. I won't be bothering anyone. I'm completely relaxed. The second best place for me is the car, driving to or from work. Of course, be careful what you rehearse because, in the car, you are always just a butt-dial from having an audience.


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