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How to tackle the divide between techies and non-techies at work

When you work among techies, you learn a lot of things.

You learn that most of them are pessimistic about the upcoming film “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and their faithfulness to the book. As a rule, you learn that techies like Linux and hate Microsoft. Among many other useful things, you also learn at work among techies how they really, really feel about technology.

Even if you don’t work in a tech environment yourself, you may have had a taste of the take by techies if you’ve ever dealt with the stereotypical corporate IT guy. This is the guy (a unisex term in this column) who shows up hours after he’s expected, shows absolute disdain for your novice description of your problem and never fails to deliver a lecture on what you’re doing wrong.

The lecture is always delivered with a world-weary attitude and the clear impression that he has little confidence that you will comprehend anything he says or follow his instructions. If you deal more closely with technology people, say, in a product development group or an engineering lab, you may see the “other tech divide” up close and personal.

While we talk about the digital divide among technology haves and have-nots out in the user population, the other tech divide is the one that separates technical and non-technical people at work much like a wide and treacherous river (and woe to him who pretends to be more technical than he is). There’s no faking it in a truly tech-driven company.
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Over time, you may become aware of a common world view on technology. It goes something like this:

Technology is a gift that’s reserved for those of us who understand its power and the obligations associated therewith. Chief among these obligations is the willingness to read the manual. People who expect to be spoon fed their technology (those who can’t find the time to read 150 pages of online help before using the application) don’t deserve to possess the power that the technology confers.

That’s just too bad for them. Anyone who panders to these lower beings by attempting to help them use or understand technology is on a fool’s errand, and worse, is enabling slovenly and irresponsible behavior.

This view of technology and its users isn’t too different from the old joke about an expensive restaurant where there are no prices printed on the menu. A patron asks nervously: “How much is the steak tartar?” The waiter replies: “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

The major and screaming detail that technologists miss when they develop this world view is that they like to do things like take apart electronic devices and read user manuals. They value these things and look down on people who don’t without registering that this stuff is really fun for them. Of course they like it and value it!

Creating colorful marketing collateral, which is a ton of fun for their colleagues in marketing, is a total ore to these people and that kind of work has little to no value.

As for me, I like to read about the five families of New York and compare theories about who was responsible for the shooting death of boss Carmine Galante at Umberto’s Clam House (among other notable mob killings), but I sure don’t expect you to like it. If you want the layman’s view of the mafia, I’ll be happy to share what I know.

This is the tech divide that creates so much bad feeling between technical and non-technical people in firms across the Midwest. It’s not just the basic fact that some people are more technically inclined and savvy than others. It’s more deeply rooted impatience among some technical folks toward the rest of us.

We don’t get it and we don’t deserve to get it. Don’t we remember what they told us nine months ago in a very cogent and comprehensive e-mail message? What sins have I committed in past lives for which my sentence is to work among such idiots day after day?

There is a way to deal with this tech divide if you’re on the tech have-nots side of the river. First of all, don’t get mad. Don’t get defensive. Don’t call your tech colleague a geek (it’s a compliment to them) or a tech weenie or a dweeb or a nerd.

In his eyes, you are just a suit, a clueless bureaucrat or an empty-headed marketing (or HR, finance, manufacturing, etc.) flunky. Don’t get going down the barb-throwing path if you can help it. Just be patient – as patient as you can be – and guide the conversation toward a happier outcome:

Your Techie Workmate: What do you mean you couldn’t understand my memo? It was perfectly clear.

You: Isn’t that interesting: how different two perspectives can be on the same piece of writing. I truly didn’t understand your point. Could you share that with me again?

YTW: My point is that the requirements document you sent over is a joke. The requirements are incredibly murky and some of them are impossible. You’re clearly not a product developer. Do you even have a technical degree?

You: No. I graduated with a bachelor’s in marketing from Loyola.

YTW: Great. Next time, get your facts straight.

You: You know, the interesting thing is that I worked very closely with Rajiv on the product spec. Maybe the three of us should meet. It may be that he can help us articulate the requirements we’re looking for in a way that would be clearer to you.

YTW: I doubt it. Rajiv went to some school in Texas to study civil engineering, for Pete’s sake.

You: Nonetheless, let’s sit down and go over the requirements. If I can suggest from a user perspective how we want the product to work and Rajiv can add his input, I think we can make some good progress and get through the requirements quickly.

YTW: OK, I’ll meet with you, but I really don’t have time for this.

You: In the meantime, why don’t you send me a requirements document that you have worked from in the past and found to be more specific or clear than the one I wrote? That would be helpful for me to see.


Why do I ask you, as the non-techie conversation partner, to bend like this? Why not just pull rank, get mad or remind this arrogant pinhead that the sales you enable pay his salary? Because showing some restraint and directing the conversation in a positive direction is more effective than getting into a shoving match in the hallway.

It doesn’t work to say: “Don’t get heavy-handed with me. At least I have functional social skills.” It doesn’t work to say: “If you can’t understand my requirements document, I’ll find a product developer who can.”

The most successful non-techies (and I don’t care how much jargon you’ve picked up: if you’re not in a technical role or responsible for one, you’re a non-techie) are the ones who span boundaries, who strive to be inclusive and who don’t get mad when their technical skills are impugned.

Try the boundary-spanning approach and see if it works for you. If not, you can always throw in the towel and take a job in HR.

Comments

Gina Meronek responded 9 years ago: #1

I find much of the content of this article offensive. I am an IT worker, and though the stereotypes presented in this article have some basis in reality, the truth is that the techie described above would have a very hard time remaining employed. Mistreatment of and open disdain for users are not behaviors that IT managers tolerate.

We may kvetch amongst ourselves about users who refuse to read 5 step instructions, or who treat us as a strange human subspecies because we like technology, but we are not allowed to maintain "holier than thou" attitudes when we are working directly with users. This article has very little actual instruction in it, and burns more bridges than it builds.

Judy responded 9 years ago: #2

I'm a M.S. degreed research analyst. I have worked with the categories of IT workers described in the author's piece as well as Gina M's response. In my experience, which category of IT worker one encounters in the work place depends mostly on the expectations put forth to IT workers by management.

Bonnie T. responded 9 years ago: #3

Articles like this one are absolutely counter-productive. It is loaded with stereotypes and generalizations that are both untrue and offensive. I work in IT and would be horrified to see coworkers with act in the disrespectful way that the author describes as typical of "techies." The "technological divide" she describes appears to be a defensive perspective of someone who is not comfortable with their own technological abilities.

The most regretful thing about this article is that it is a topic that could have been addressed in a useful way. Communication between those with a technical background and those without can be challenging, especially when the topic is a technical one. Improving this communication is a valid goal and should be addressed with more decorum and impartiality.

Karl B responded 9 years ago: #4

I loved this article. Obviously, if you write an article, you have to make a generalization or two. I can absolutely recall many IT people who are like this - heck, I may even be one of them.

It's always a soft stabbing to the head when a project manager requests a functional change without having a clue how much effort will be needed to implement that change. The project manager internally believes you as a developer are simply lazy - when in fact, you are simply looking out for the best of the team and getting a project in on-time and under-budget. Yes - it would be nice to have (insert function here), but the client doesn't need it to achieve their goals - and they absolutely won't want to pay for it.

George M. III responded 7 years ago: #5

This article couldn't be truer! I can't tell you how many times I've had to deal with techies, especially the contractor types who think they know everything, yet spend hours trying to Google a solution. Most of these techies are your run-of-the-mill Know-It-All. You know they type! The guy who always has an answer for every question, Mr. Jeopardy. But when you see him playing Bar Trivia, he's in last place. He'll come up with an excuse that the other guys are there all day playing and know the answers. Talk about an oxymoron.

Yes, there are decent techies, but they are far and few between. They usually can't hold a job for long because they are always battling amongst themselves over who is "so-called" smarter. Funny, most these guys never went to college, saying it's a waste of time. I love the article!

Kalyan responded 5 years ago: #6

You cannot generalize one way or the other. I have seen plenty of non-techies who have this greater-than-thou attitude and spout nonsense which you have to pretend to agree with because of position power. It could be changing the requirements at will, setting arbitrary deadlines or personal agendas and politics in decision making. Many non-techies do not respect techies as humans or value the amount of effort it takes to achieve what they do. Only way out for both sides is respect the other guy for what he does because often you can't do what he can.

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