The Importance of Communication: How to Assist the Non-Technical in Understanding Technology

By Rob Foxx, CCBTO

As an information technology or information security professional, have you ever had a conversation with a member of your team and watched their eyes glaze over and think to yourself, ‘did they just understand a word I said?’ Welcome to the industry — this is part two in my series assisting technical and non-technical staff to better communicate on the subject of technology. Before breaking down a few simple ideas tech professionals can keep in mind when communicating with non-technical peers — we should first discuss where (and why) we as technology professionals falter in our communication.

Gaps in Experience

Like many of my peers, I spent my younger years studying both in college and independently to absorb as much information as I could in preparation for my career. In many ways, college helped me build my baseline for what I would need to learn both on my own as well as on the job. In addition to the standard classes within my major, I was also required to take speech classes like many college students. I did very well in speaking classes, however, my speeches were often on topics far more engaging to the audience than disaster recovery, firewalls, or server specifications.

Since then, I’ve spent much of my career working in teams with non-technical co-workers and, considering my target audience is usually within the banking industry, more than likely you too are a single individual or part of a very small team supporting your enterprise with minimal contact with those sharing your understanding of technology.

If you are of my generation or older, you were likely told somewhere along the way that you were very gifted or had aptitudes that leaned towards the up-and-coming field of information technology. Unfortunately, if you had any degree of awkwardness, it may have also been sold to you as something that would not require you to regularly communicate with people — a detail probably very few people have found to be true.

Having technical skills, aside from communication, is one of the most important skills one can have. On the upside, many of us have found being an effective communicator does not mean being a master orator or an excellent writer. As proof to that, I will tell you in all honesty that I am neither. I stumble over my words, and I need someone to proofread anything holding more content than a short email or technical report.

Four Things to Keep in Mind

As I continue through my career and often work closely with non-technical individuals, I have found that there are a few ways our profession can not only communicate better, but also build relationships for better future communications.

  • Do not get frustrated with your audience.

None of us learned our profession overnight, so do not set the expectation that your non-technical team members will learn yours after one chat. By getting frustrated, you do a great disservice to the effort of everyone who was patient enough to make sure you understood your profession well enough that you could work successfully and independently.

In further developing good communication skills, technical people will realize the importance of asking co-workers to be specific in their requests. You may frequently get calls from peers saying, “my computer does not work.” By asking follow up questions such as “what are you trying to do,” “what does the computer do when you do that,” or “walk me through the problem,” tech professionals will generally get a better overall response and diagnosis of the issue at hand.

  • Know your audience.

Knowing who you’re talking to and their level of understanding in the subject you are talking about is the major difference between public speaking and speaking with business leaders. Never make assumptions about their level of understanding or be afraid to ask how familiar they are with virtual environments. The least technical executive at your bank most likely still receives business articles that could offer a baseline understanding of the subject matter at hand. Either assuming too much or too little could lead to your target getting frustrated with you expending their limited time.

  • Find a beta user.

My original career goal was to become a software developer. I said from day one that I would want to hire someone who is older and less tech savvy to work with my team and test my product. If my non-technical mother could operate it without significant guidance, then I would have succeeded in developing a product that offers an intuitive and user-friendly design and would be well accepted for its ease of use.

To apply this idea in dealing with business leaders, remember that if you can explain it to someone non-technical — be it a spouse, parent, or even a helpful co-worker — business leaders should have a better chance of understanding what thoughts you are trying to convey.

  • Don’t be judgmental.

Make sure to have a non-judgmental way of communicating if a decision that is being made or considered is problematic. In technology, it may be stating that “this is a band aid to the problem,” or “we will need to readdress this problem sometime in the near future.” In information security, the cue is often “we can do that if you are willing to accept the risk and sign a risk acceptance form.”

Now that we have looked at the issues and a few things to help keep in mind, I encourage you to keep in mind that learning complex concepts and making decisions is a process. Talking over the heads of your coworkers and business leaders may only make this process more difficult. Remember, technology is your profession — not theirs.

Foxx is director – infosec and IT audit services for FIPCO, a WBA Gold Associate Member.