How to talk to a non-tech person about tech stuff - Verse

How to talk to a non-tech person about tech stuff

A little over a week ago, Verse concluded its second hackathon. Our engineers came up with extremely imaginative ways to make our lives more practical and pleasant. As usual, we all came away thinking they were geniuses and thanking them for solving problems we didn’t know we had, but we also came away feeling something that for many of us was new: we had understood what they were talking about! THE WHOLE TIME!

Of course, some of this understanding comes from the synergy we create by spending time together as well as from being entrenched in the culture many hours a day, many days a week. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that our developers have become really good at explaining things to us non-developers.

We are well aware of how important this is, since it ensures good communication between teams and shortens the distance between the product and the people responsible for explaining the product. For this reason, we decided to ask one of our backend developers, Dani Torramilans, to talk to us a little bit about both the challenges that he faces when talking to non-tech people about tech stuff, and the tricks that he’s developed to navigate these challenges.

Do you find it difficult to explain novelties and advances from your day to day job to people that are not engineers?

It can sometimes be tricky, but it’s usually not required for non-technicals to fully grasp all the details and intricacies. They usually care about the reasoning behind things, and how processes work, which can usually be laid out in layman’s terms with the aid of a few analogies and some imagination.

How do you know where to begin?

You try to get a grasp of what the person knows and build upon those concepts, instead of introducing the new ones and working backward.

Have you had to develop multiple ways of explaining things? (Like, if something is not working, are you used to pivoting even in your ways of explaining?)

Depending on the context, some situations require a more conceptual approach (explaining what each thing is) or a more procedural approach (explain what each thing does). I usually try to describe systems or processes as a series of people interacting with each other, which usually works well in any context. If that fails, I’ll think of a more concrete way of explaining things.

Do you often find yourself in this situation?

It happens every now and then, yes, specially in a small startup.

Are there any resources you would recommend to non-tech people willing and wanting to be more tech versed (no pun intended) in their daily life?

Computer science and engineering are very broad (and deep) fields, and the learning curve can be steep, at least to acquire proper knowledge that will be relevant to your workplace’s day-to-day. Still, there are tons of resources online, though I don’t believe there’s an easy shortcut that won’t leave fundamental things out. Good programmers are aware of most of their stack (the technologies they use and the technologies behind those) they are working with, which involves many different technologies and fields within computer science. That is unfeasible for non-tech people with limited time to invest, so I’d suggest they try and get a grip of the technology they have to deal with on a daily basis and ask whenever they need more working knowledge about something.

Would you say there are tech brained people and non-tech brained people or can anyone learn?

Tech derives from math and engineering. If you are into those, you should have no problem, the same way someone with a good memory will have less trouble picking up History. In my experience, tech people in general tend to be more rational and less emotional, but I’m not confident enough to claim it reflects the larger population.

Do you think there’s a figure in your work life (product manager, for example) that makes this process easier for everybody? If not, do you think there should be?

Product managers do help, specially if technical, but in a small startup like Verse it’s very common to have engineers explaining the tech side of things to other employees.

Can you get your parents to understand what you do?

Yes, but using even more simplistic​ analogies than those I use at work. My family is very much non-technical, and sometimes the level of interest exhibited by both parties is not big enough to make it worth our while to go in-depth about my line of work.

You’re a musician. Do you think the fact that you constantly train both on a creative and a rational level makes you better equipped to take on these conversations?

I think music empowers the creative/emotional/empathic side of my brain, but I’m not sure if there’s a direct correlation. Explaining things in layman’s terms does require creativity, though, so I figure it can’t be bad for you to exercise your creative muscle more often.

If you could give all non-tech people one piece of advice on this topic, what would it be? (this can range from: don’t worry about it to…you know, just become an engineer)

Don’t worry about not knowing how tech things work. It’s part of an engineer’s job to help you get there. Just have patience and be willing to learn.

If you’re an engineer and have further advice that could advance this conversation, please leave your thoughts in the comments section. If you work with engineers and have tricks as to how to ask the right questions, please share them with us as well!

Thanks for reading!

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