Be A Translator: The Importance Of Being Precise In Your Speech In The Tech World

Originally posted on Forbes Technology Council

I am a translator, and I speak, with varying levels of fluency, geek, tech, LAN, WAN, virtual, Microsoft, database, hardware, server, social networking, marketing, consultant, web development, DevOps, security, finance, mobile, Windows, Mac and even Luddite. There are probably others I am missing. Am I an expert in all these tongues? No, but I know them well enough to translate them into the native tongue of Layperson.

My career in tech-related work has spanned over 35 years, and as a result, I have been able to spot some trends. One of them is that the need for translators rises with the complexity of technology. This is obvious. As the world gets more complex, driven in part by technology, so does the need for more tech speak. Those able to translate customer or staff needs into technology solutions are critical parts of any organization or business.

In my own workplace, often what staff asks for — say, a report from data or a software tool — is not what they really want or need. My job is to tease out what they need and match it to the best solution. Then I need to communicate that to technical staff, who often do not speak consultant-ese or finance-speak, so the staff person ends up with what they need. Simple and straightforward enough, though not easy.

Secondly, my job as a translator is to communicate technology needs to people who control finances, strategic direction, staffing, mission and other organizational assets. My needs are only a part of a larger picture. Explaining to a CEO or CFO the reasons we need to hire another web application developer because we are adding a new programming language, which may or may not add to revenue for several years, is tough. And we do not always translate correctly — sometimes unintentionally and sometimes on purpose.

This second trend is both interesting and troubling to me. In the last couple of decades, I have noticed that tech speak is often overcomplicated — to the point that only tech-adherents speak and understand it. We have created a culture where the burden of translation falls on the nonfluent (i.e., we act as if the layperson needs to figure out what we are saying). And when they do not understand, they are often afraid to say so because we act as if they should.

I see this culture of shame-speak in my own workplace and in organizations with which I work and consult. Vendors are the worst offenders, throwing out terms I sometimes think they make up on the spot. I am not shy about asking, “What the heck did you just say?” because if I do not understand, I am not going to be able to explain it to a nontech speaker.

I fully admit we are not the only offenders speaking proprietary language others do not understand. Marketing and advertising folks are brilliant babble speakers, for example. But I think we have honed gibberish to get what we want. I am not saying we lie. I am saying we intentionally drop word bombs with the hope or assumption others will not ask for details and explanation. Have we have created a culture of complexity to justify our jobs?

If so, cut it out! Think about your audience when you communicate something technical. Explain that your “disaster recovery data is stored off-site on a computer in Nevada” instead of our “DR strategy is to use hyper-converged infrastructure to replicate data across clusters in the cloud.” Say, “We are simplifying our log-on security by using Microsoft’s web-based tools,” rather than, “We are going to configure automatic user provisioning and deprovisioning for just-in-time access to new resources upon hire or role-change” (a quote from Microsoft’s Azure website).

As someone who is hyper-aware of my time and efficiency, I now know it is much better to make sure others understand in our first conversation rather than circling back around later to explain it again, this time when they are likely listening with a skeptical perspective.

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