What’s a Meta For?

Keil Hubert, Biz Tech’s resident US tech blogger, looks this week at translating shop floor techy-speak into simple English for Executives ©.

Industrious: Is your management insulated from the shop floor?

I got an earful of criticism from some hard-core nerds last week about my column on virtualization. Some of the lads were displeased with my lorry analogy. They all had their opinion on a better way to communicate the concepts.

I understand their point; analogy is a crude tool, and if you’re clumsy using it, you can leave your audience with a terribly skewed impression; potentially one that does more harm than good.

I am a huge believer in precise language. I despise undefined pronouns in conversation and will usually halt a tech in mid-sentence if he makes too many assumptions about my foreknowledge of what he’s discussing.

Similarly, I’m always skeptical of similes, metaphors and analogies when they’re chucked at me by marketing types. I can usually “get” what the marketer is trying to convey … but that’s rarely what the product actually does. I want to know what I’m buying, not what the non-technical sales weasel is selling.

Shifty: Would you buy a secondhand rock from this salesman?

That said, strong language skills are indispensible for those of us working in business technology. Seven times out of ten[1], the senior management types that I provide IT services for don’t have the faintest idea how any of the systems and networks actually work. When something goes sideways, the grumpy and impatient users get anxious and lash out.

They don’t understand what’s wrong, can’t communicate what they’re experiencing, can’t work out their own work-around, and feel trapped. It gets worse when an older executive calls in to the service desk and has a teenage geek sneer at him over the phone for his technical ineptitude. I inevitably wind up paying for that for years after each incident.

You can rarely ever find a senior management type that’s willing to sit still for the forty or so hours that it takes to demystify TCP/IP.[2] They’re impatient people by nature – that’s how they rose up through the ranks. They want to build! Or sell! Or whatever it takes to drive revenue! If they wanted to be a tech, they’d have done it in their youth (or so they’ll tell you with a haughty sniff).

Witchcraft and sorcery: your average executive’s understanding of network tech.

They’re certainly not inclined to listen to a detail-saturated lecture about network traffic analysis or why you can’t just click on the “bugs = off” option on the e-mail server console. Show these blokes a Command Line Interface, and most of them will start to seize up.

This is where storytelling ability becomes your best weapon. The blokes in the corner office are neither interested in nor willing to learn about the techy stuff, but they almost always keen about something else – usually sport – which you can co-opt in order to get an idea across.

In my last department, for example, almost all of the lads were obsessive about American football. Back when we used to hold our departmental staff meeting on Tuesday mornings, they would all come in all chuffed about some game or exciting play or statistical anomaly that had occurred the night before. It would take me darned near fifteen minutes to get the guys back on track.

Now, for honesty’s sake, let’s be clear: it would probably take a team of theoretical physicists and a Large Hadron Collider to discover a way to make me care any less about sport. I can watch the games and understand (generally) what’s happened, but the outcome is utterly meaningless to me. I don’t want to hear about it.

Sporting chance: analogies relating to senior executives’ hobbies are more likely to be understood.

However … I understand that many of the bosses are equally crazy about sport. One of our senior executives, for example, is a fanatic for professional ice hockey.[3] I discovered many years back that if I invest some time researching a topic that my executives enjoy, enough to build an analogy within the topic, it pays tremendous dividends. Here’s the simple rule:

If you can communicate in your executives’ preferred language, then they’ll be far more likely to listen to and understand what you’re saying when you try to explain a technical issue.

For my hockey-loving executive, for example, I could talk until I’m blue in the face about how the Internet is not “broken” when he finds that he can’t reach an off-campus web service. The concepts of applications, services and throughput may as well be Ancient Thassilonian as far as he’s concerned.

Yet, when I suggest that it’s more like him, as a hockey player, taking a shot on the opposing goal from the middle of the rink, but the puck can’t go into the net because the net has fallen over, he completely understands what I mean.

Scoring: you can while the net’s upright, but not if it falls over.

It’s not his fault; the piece on the other end isn’t accepting his input, and is therefore preventing him from completing his task. Easy-peasy. Wait until the distant server is fixed, then try again. Once he grasped that idea, his anxiety lessened and we got the time we needed to get our work done.

In many respects, this is why we have directors and Chief Tech Officers in business. It’s not that we’re the highest-certified techs in the department. In fact, it’s usually a disaster to take a hard core tech and promote him or her out of production and into senior management because they can’t communicate well with their new peers.

One of our critical functions, as senior IT leaders, is to translate what the lads in the engine room are saying to what the gentlemen on the wardroom can understand. You have to max out your communication skills in order to be successful overall.

Salty: the language of your hands-on team may not translate well into exec-speak.

Further: one of the best methods for maximizing your effectiveness is to perform some preemptive research into the topics that your executives are currently “into,” with an eye towards how you can communicate a tech idea to them in terms of their interests.

[1] In my experience, in my industry; all normal disclaimers apply. Your mileage may vary, consult your doctor, offer void in Montana, etc.

[2] Although when you find such a patient, open executive, pour training money into them! Send them to every tech course you can afford, on your dime, so that you can slowly convert them into a fellow nerd.

[3] No, I have no idea why. I’ve always suspected that he’s secretly a Canadian, but I can’t prove it.

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own).

His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees.

He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.

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  • Peacefull Anarchist

    I read a similar story about the US Supreme Court. Their average age is 72 years old (per Wikipedia)….and it’s younger now due to the unexpected death of Rehnquist (would be 87), and retirement of O’Connor (who would be 82 now).

    While still smart people, these people formed their life-view in an farm and manual labor based society. Some grew up on farms. Regardless, phones were a luxury and if they even had for the family while one growing up, it was a party line.

    These same people, with zero technical expertise, zero software expertise, and their only biological expertise is breeding pigs or planting crops, are being asked to weigh in on very subtle issues in very narrow fields…. like the technical hardware, software, and gesture minutia of personal computers that can connect to phone networks (aka “cell phones”)

    The Justices don’t use computers and some don’t use smart phones to this day. They don’t understand technology, biology, or how software works. And in the brief hour you get with them, you can’t bring them up to speed.

    Thus, as one lawyer who’s been up a few times explained it, whoever comes up with the best farm analogy wins. It’s not right or wrong, it’s not justice, it’s who can sway the argument by relating their story on viral-payload genetic insertion to being “down home on the farm, and the weasel slips into the henhouse, but instead of killing them he puts a fake hen in that grabs eggs for him.”

    Speaking a language your boss knows, to get him/her to understand based your expertise, is a required skill in any job.

  • Keil Hubert

    You’re quite right, P.A. … The further up the ladder of power you go, the less tech savvy the almighty executives tend to become. This can be absolutely terrifying, especially when existential questions are being debated by folks who have no handle on the moment. The example of the U.S. Supreme Court is well taken. Without in any way questioning their integrity or commitment, just how just can a person be when they make a ruling over something so far outside their experience that their decision-making process is based on fumbling, over-simplified, and often-misleading analogies? Take it down a notch to your own company, and it’s still pretty chilling.

    The trick here — I submit — is that analogy, simile and metaphor are quite necessary if you’re going to have any hope at all of getting the idea across. A critical element of putting together your analogy comes down to understanding both your technical problem and the audience’s preferred topic of interest in enough detail that your analogy actually holds up. The hockey example from the column works well enough to get the core idea across without confusing it. Whereas, if I’d compared two-factor authentication to “getting to third base in a rugby rink,” that would so confuse (and possibly insult) the sports enthusiast listener that I’d actively undermine my own cause.

    The more obscure the discipline, the more difficult it becomes to explain it, and the more easily your message is lost. Therefore, decent research into some conceptual common ground becomes absolutely critical. After all … most folks aren’t going to take the time to learn about your technical field, so common analogy is about the only way you have to lead a non-techie to a reasonably informed decision.



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