As I sat in my first business communication class in college, my instructor told us that the number one requested skill for developers is better communication. Ha! There was a group of us sitting together in the back row. We looked at each other, giggled, and continued playing Rockets ‘n Rails (a video game). We were there to become developers, not to learn how to “talk business”. I didn’t pay much attention to that class.
Wow, was I wrong.
Fast forward. I’m out of college now working my first job as a developer, receiving my performance review. I’ll let you guess how well I scored in “communication”. Granted, I wasn’t terrible, but I certainly wasn’t meeting my manager’s expectations.
It took me a while to realize it, but I lost out early on by not being able to communicate properly in the business world. It also didn’t help the organization, as it was hard for me to describe why things were programmed the way they were, or the reason for doing one thing rather than another. Further, how could I reach my maximum potential if I didn’t even understand the entirety of the business I was operating within?
Why Does IT Struggle with Communication?
In my situation, it was because I wanted to code/build applications and websites. I think a lot of IT staff choose their field for the love of programming, IT operations, and everything “cool” in tech. After all, no one goes in thinking, “I want to be in tech so I can talk, train and support my end users.” But when you boil it down, that’s really our job, isn’t it?
Another issue is the way the education system is currently set up. There are tons of courses and training available for aspiring IT folks. That said, few programs have communication or business course requirements. When you do find it, communication training isn’t IT specific; it’s just standard business communication. I know if my one required course in college had been tailored to the perspective of a developer, I probably would have been a lot more interested.
As a result, a lot of us have a hard time in this area. We particularly struggle transmitting technical information to non-technical people. But that’s not surprising if we haven’t been given the tools to do so.
How Can We Fix It?
I think two primary factors will lead to better IT communication:
The first is having IT staff truly understand why communication is so important. I would argue that it’s even more important than technical skills and knowledge.
Doing so might be tricky. It took two instances for the importance to click with me. First was when I was tasked to develop and train staff on our AMS during a two-day conference. The second was at my first AMS user conference. It was eye opening listening to all the amazing people converse on business topics that discussed technology as a means to their end, rather than the actual end itself (as I was used to thinking about it). My frustration was when I wanted to contribute to the conversation, but didn’t know how to do so meaningfully.
Once the realization hit and I started actively working on improving my communication, I was then able to start seeing the bigger picture, and most importantly, wanting to see it. I was now able to get the information I needed to understand what the end users were actually asking for, where it tied into the business, and how it aligned with our strategic goals.
The second is mentorship. You can find endless technical content, but I currently do not know of an outlet where IT staff can be mentored to develop their soft skills.
Now, I’ve worked hard to improve my own communication. I’ve come a long way. (I “meet expectations” in my performance reviews now!) That is in part because I’ve been lucky to have fantastic managers and other coworkers who point out issues in my communication and offer ways I can improve. Not everyone has this type of support though, and it would go a long way if they did.
What Are Some Things IT Staff Can Do to Improve?
I’ve instructed classrooms and webinar-based staff training, written lots of documentation pages, been more involved with marketing and communications departments, presented a few times at conferences, and of course have written articles for AssociationSuccess.org.
You learn so much more when you are teaching others. It will cost nothing but a little extra time, and you will sharpen your skills.
With a little twist to Steve Ballmer’s famous words to developers, I leave you with this: “Communication! Communication! Communication!”