by Andre Bourque

What IT pros need to know about interfacing with other carbon-based life forms

Apr 26, 2017

Carbon-base life forms are everywhere and we can’t live without them.

Retro business people with speech bubbles and buzz words
Credit: Thinkstock

There’s a whole world of people out there, and techies need to be able to work with them. With all due respect, technical and nontechnical people sometimes seem like different life forms, and neither group seems to understand the other.

Technical people have designed the world in which we all live. Information workers are fast becoming the largest workforce segment. Without them, banking, communications, utilities, manufacturing, education, retail and security would all come to a standstill. But it would help if techies knew more about how nontechnical people operate (and vice versa).

The soft skills

Programmers, developers, engineers and mechanics are quite accomplished and possess high-demand talents. But if they want to advance, they need to develop or strengthen the soft skills often ignored in their education and experience.

1. Face-to-face communication

Most technical workers are involved in communications systems in one way or another. They design and build systems that exchange information and data for business, healthcare, education, science, payroll and so much more. They are inclined to bring their system discipline to verbal and written communication, and that can be a problem for some. Engineers do not specialize in nuance or irony. Metaphors and similes have no place in their daily work.

They think in binary terms that lack gray areas in a field that is often difficult to explain. Jonathan Wray, a communications specialist at IBM Canada, put it this way in an article that appeared on “It’s very easy to fall into acronyms and jargon and buzzwords that only select people understand. If you’re dealing with clients who might not have the same degree of technical understanding, it’s very important to speak and write clearly.”

As businesses emphasize teamwork, collaboration and shared accountabilities, they consider strong communication a baseline competency, according to Harvard University Extension. But from the time they first grew interested in their field, many technologists have led lives attached to systems, devices and “cold” things.

As a matter of form and training, they have spent most of their time entering, connecting and reacting to code writing, calculations and metrics. This lack of social and person-to-person interaction does not negatively affect their performance as specialists, but it can keep them from doing well in circles where body language, tone of voice and eye contact carry meaningful messages. Therefore, many of them could benefit from stronger interpersonal skills, which could build credentials that can strengthen their resumes.

2. Writing

Most technicians do fine with grammar and punctuation because they are well ordered and somewhat regimented. However, without regularly reading and writing nontechnical material, they may have a difficult time expressing themselves using a more mainstream thought process and vocabulary.

To improve in this area, they would benefit from training in rhetorical skills that differentiate between exposition, narration, process, description, classification, comparison, causality and argument. It’s all about nuance. For example, when a customer writes an email asking how something works, a technical expert should refrain from the mechanics or logic of an algorithm, and concentrate instead on the customer’s desired outcome or result. That’s what the customer cares about and can understand.

As points out, “techies tend to be trees people.” That is, they tend to focus on trees rather than the forest. But it might also refer to the binary process of branching every point to a “yes” or “no,” with a tendency to rely on flowcharts and schematics. Also, the fact is if you can’t write with organization and clarity, you cannot share what you know with the larger world where you can gain recognition and career advancement. 

3. Relationship-building: It’s a two-way street

Relationships must be reciprocal, and that means techies deserve a break. They deserve some respect, empathy and praise. The people who staff a help desk are not simply maintenance workers. Users should learn enough of the tech lingo to accurately describe their needs and the mitigation steps they have taken.

Relationships are updated on social media, but they are not built that way. Dorie Clark, writing for Forbes, says, “Relationships determine the job offers you’ll get, the consulting contracts you’ll win and the business opportunities you’ll be presented with, and this requires you to keep people in your orbit.”

4. Personal finances

Personal financial management (or mismanagement) can influence one’s quality of life and piece of mind. For example, according to credit improvement specialists at Lexington Law, 40 million people have errors in their credit reports. It may take interactions with other people to solve this and other challenges. Buying a house, investing or negotiating a raise are all activities that can be more effective and profitable when other people are included and relied on (interacted with) to reach the best conclusions. Technical people should not get sucked into the notion that all financial issues should be dealt with online. Other people can help.

Carbon-base life forms are everywhere. We can’t live without them, so we might as well figure out how to interact with them.