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Letters to a Young Manager

Technology Without the Technology, #7
LTYM > Communication

Dear Adam,
I understand your frustration explaining technical concepts to nontechnical folks. It is like spoon feeding infants who cannot yet stomach solid food. But you need to beware of techno-arrogance, acting like a 15-year-old know-it-all. One of the most important roles you will play as a technology manager is one of translator.

Early in my career I was often asked to explain a software application or piece of hardware. More often than not these questions came from those up the management line. They wanted to know why technology took so long to deliver, why it was so hard to use, and why it cost so much. While it tempting to show off my technology prowess, they didn't want the technical answer. They wanted a business answer or at least a good metaphor. And they did not want to be talked down to. A tall order, yes?

Kurt was a Vice President who was a smart businessman and strategist. He would occasionally drop by my office and ask me to explain something technical. We spent a fair amount of time drawing diagrams and pictures on the white board (remember the Carol Heitner story?) One time Kurt was wrestling with a licensing agreement we were negotiating with an investment research group on the west coast. He wanted to know how much effort it would take to convert and connect their system into ours. He also wanted to know about the level of technical knowledge at the investment group. What he wanted to know was how much we would need to invest to make the software merger work and to support it going forward. I told him we could make it happen if we had their source code, so we could read and understand the basic building blocks of their system, and that based on what I knew so far, that would take 3-6 months. I bridged the gap in his thinking and together we made the connections. He adjusted the "ask" of the business deal accordingly and we acquired the software.

This is what good service is all about: being able to understand your client's frame of reference, to walk in their shoes with some good old fashioned empathy. To lead, you have to serve. That's an important paradox to wrap your mind around early. A great technology manager will have an uncanny ability to understand their internal customer needs, talk about how technology can help meet those needs, and --here's the rub--have the conversation in the language of their audience. I cannot over emphasize the importance of this bilingual, translating role.

One footnote: translators don't translate everything. They translate what's most important, most needed. So the flip side of being a good story teller, is succinctness. Bottom line it! But that's a topic for another letter.
Best regards,



Speak technology in nontechnical terms

Discussion Questions:

1) Can you recall a time when you were asked to play a role of translator? What was the question and what did you say in reply?
2) Does the role of translator have a part in areas other than technology? What are some examples?
3) What do you believe are the most important things that senior business managers want to know? Are these questions "on the table" or questions behind the questions?

For Further Reading:

See my Blog post on "Finding the Bottom Line"

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