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Field Notes The Infamous Jargon Barrier
Ron Melanson


We’ve all done it at one point or another in our career. We find ourselves in the presence of an executive from our company and look to capitalize on the opportunity, making sure that they know about the great work we are doing. We proceed to tell them all about the project we are working on. We dazzle them with our technical skills and throw out all the usual IT acronyms and buzzwords. Unfortunately, all the executive hears is the faint hum of the air conditioning or elevator motor. We have hit the infamous jargon barrier.
It usually starts in college. Many of us have IT or engineering degrees and during our college days we were rewarded for our dazzling technical insight. The primary differentiator between us and our peers was our knowledge of our area of specialty and our ability to show it. Upon graduation, the real world was significantly different—things we learned in college no longer counted toward our ability to be recognized or rewarded, or at least not in the manner they once did. We are now in a people business and a pure play engineering mindset will be an inhibitor to our long-term growth in many organizations. Social skills and business acumen are now more important than pure technical wizardry.
What is important to your executive and what is important to you are not necessarily the same thing. It is critical that you, as an IT pro, understand how to interact with management (those who control the budgets, the headcount, or the really cool project you desperately want) since they usually have an impact on your success.
During my years of IT consulting I was afforded the opportunity to speak with many executives at various companies. Recurring statements from executives included "My IT folks speak a different language," "I have issues engaging with IT and understanding what they are doing," and "Why do you people always think that I am a techie—I am not—that’s why you are here."
Let’s face it; most executives do not have IT backgrounds. They typically have business school degrees and are very adept at process flows, planning, marketing, and competitive analysis. Most IT pros do not have business backgrounds; we possess engineering or computer science degrees and are very adept with group policy, Kerberos, SQL, and DNS. It is our responsibility to understand the business side of the world and communicate effectively. This presents an opportunity for the savvy IT professional to bridge the two cultures.
I often recommend that IT pros focus on three areas for personal development: technical skills (those that keep you gainfully employed), business skills (understanding areas such as NPV/ROI, Payback, DFCF, IRR, and EBIT), and soft skills (presentation, communications, and technical writing). This creates a well-rounded technical professional who possesses the tools and the terminology to communicate with all levels of an organization, not just with the data center. This philosophy of expanding beyond the traditional IT skill set will put you light years ahead of most of your peers.
You can take several steps to build your executive communications skills.
  • First, read the company annual report. If the company is publicly traded, you can usually find this information under Investor Relations on the company home page or at SEC Filings & Forms (EDGAR). An excellent guide to understanding annual reports is available at InvestorGuide.com.
  • You should read and understand your company mission statement.
  • Join and attend a public speaking group. This will help tremendously with your ability to communicate clearly and confidently with your clients.
  • Talk to your boss or your boss's boss about how technology is supporting the key business initiatives and understand the impact that you or your team are making to the objectives.
  • Ask yourself if you can pass the "grandma test"—can you explain to your grandmother what you are doing in a way she can understand. Likening executives to your grandmother is not disrespectful to them or to grandma at all; it just allows you to move beyond the pure-IT mindset.
The old adage rings true, "You have but one chance to make a first impression." By arming yourself with an understanding of what business professionals need from their interactions with IT personnel you can position yourself in the very best possible light.

Ron Melanson is a 10 year veteran of Microsoft Services. He has performed enterprise strategy consulting for customers in the accounting, pharmaceutical, logistics, and retail industries. He is currently a manager on the East Region Services team and is based in New York City. You can reach him at ron.melanson@hotmail.com.
© 2008 Microsoft Corporation and CMP Media, LLC. All rights reserved; reproduction in part or in whole without permission is prohibited.
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