Thursday, October 3, 2013

Technologists - Go learn a second language - English!!!

Communicating on the same level...

In the technology field, I'm often amazed how many people think that the more words they can say and the less others can understand, the more intelligent they sound.  This can be used to mask discomfort with normal conversation, a lack of knowledge of a subject, or an inability to read the non-verbals from your audience.  It definitely is not leaderly behavior, and should be discouraged.

I'm convinced that for a non-tech, it's often like trying to understand someone that knows spanish, and is looking for a place to buy an apple in New Jersey.  Sure, there are others that know spanish around.  However, they aren't always there to translate.  What does the visitor from Spain do?  They learn enough english to be able to communicate with the kind folks in Jersey so they can find a grocery store, and get their apple.

If you're not in an exclusively high-tech industry... look around... what's the common language for your community?  Technobabble, or business speak?  I've worked for high tech companies, and the common basis for all their staff wasn't technobabble, it was common english.  I've seen the same through-out my career, english is the language of business... and acronyms and technical speak create confusion when they are used unnecessarily.

I've also been known to play oblivious to have a job candidates talk themselves into a corner, and then ask a candidate the business impact of that groundbreaking technology they just name-dropped, since I "don't quite understand it".  Wow, to hear them connect this with some business requirement would be a stretch.  In many cases they couldn't go beyond their initial name-dropping expected to wow an interviewer.  We've trained our recruiters to look for keywords, and not understand the context... and in turn we then reward an interviewee with a job they may not deserve unless we remain diligent in interview analysis.

I'm as comfortable speaking and explaining technology with a business executive as with a technical staff member.  I have learned long ago that bridging this gap allows for better alignment of business with technology.  Is it perfect?  No.  When someone pretends to understand what I say... I may not properly read that I need to synthesize this further.  This can be especially true if I believe I'm communicating with someone extremely technical, who may not be familiar with a concept I'm discussing.  Technical people are more likely to pretend to know something than ask for more information.  Anyone that knows me knows that I have no problem asking for an explanation for something they've mentioned that's new or I don't understand... and they should feel the same way.  That's how you create a learning culture.

One example of bridging the gap came early in my career.  A company I worked for lost a senior accountant during fiscal year end closing.  One of the VP's came to me, since I'd been rewriting portions of a custom developed fixed asset depreciation system they'd purchased.  The software didn't properly implement asset depreciation with MACRS vs. straight line vs. double declining balance depreciation.  I was "volunteered" for a one-time assignment to manually calculate depreciation expense for the year.  The VP had to explain things that would be common sense to a true accountant... such as the correct life for new assets, and differences between book and tax value.  I reconciled the fixed asset listing with the asset values, depreciation expense, and accumulated depreciation for the individual general ledger accounts.  It was an interesting experience.

It's experiences like this that taught me that the more we are approachable, and willing to learn, the more value we can add.  I can tell you that after that initial year of manually calculating depreciation, the fixed assets program became extremely reliable.  It even validated the accountants' input to ensure that the years assigned were valid for the type of depreciation method selected.

As technology leaders, it's our job to bridge the gap.  We would consider it rude for someone that speaks Spanish and then becomes frustrated by the arrogance of the locals not understanding their language.  However, if we don't try to bridge the gap, we are doing a similar thing!

So, try something new... learn and practice a new language... English.  You may be surprised how far it takes you!