Technical professionals have a different way of looking at the world than the rest of us. Non-technical folks sometimes find talking to them to be awkward. To help you through the rough spots, here are five tips for having smoother conversations with your IT people:
Tip #1: Don’t call them “techies.”
Technical professionals are about as fond of being labeled with a group identifier as any other group. What should you call them? Use their names. That usually works pretty well.
If the situation demands a group label, use “engineer.” It has a respectful sound to it. “Techie” (or even worse, “technician”) sounds disparaging.
Tip #2: Beware of stereotypes.
Stereotyping technical professionals (engineers) is about as useful as stereotyping any other group of people. The generalizations are just good enough to get you into trouble.
As a group, technical professionals are just as diverse as any other group, although maybe a bit smarter. They don’t all play World of Warcraft in their spare time. They don’t all know how to hack into DoD computers. They’re no more likely to be liberal or conservative than anyone else, and they don’t all read science fiction, either. There’s just no shortcut for getting to know them as individuals. Sorry.
Tip #3: Expect them to analyze things more deeply than you do.
This isn’t a personality trait. It’s a vocational requirement, and a survival skill, too. If you’re an engineer and you don’t peel the onion quite a few layers when figuring out how to make something work, you’re well on the way to becoming a former engineer.
So when you’re talking with someone who plies a technical trade, don’t get annoyed when they dive into the details. These are the folks most likely to get burned by ideas that look really convincing on a PowerPoint slide, after all. Mostly, they’re helping you stay out of trouble. Although they could also be showing off a bit, too.
Tip #4: Be interested in what they know.
See? Technical folk really are the same as everyone else. Think about your own reactions. When someone asks you to talk to them about what you know, it feels good, doesn’t it?
Another version of this same principle is to respect their subject. When an engineer hears someone say, “Explain this to me - I’d like to understand it better,” they figure this is someone they can work with. And oh, by the way, once you decide to give the subject your attention, you just might find it actually is pretty interesting.
It’s the people who say “Spare me the technical details” who get consigned to the “Not smart enough to bother with” pile.
Tip #5: Flattery helps too.
Engineers are paid to be smart. In most companies, compared to the workforce taken as a whole, they are pretty smart. And unlike a lot of the population, which views being smart with suspicion, these are people who take pride in their intellects.
So phrases like,” I don’t know how you can keep track of all that,” can go a long way.
How do you talk to engineers? The same way you talk to anyone else. Their subject matter might be arcane. But they’re still just people. Treat them that way and you won’t go wrong.