Thursday, May 03, 2007

6 Essential communication tips for IT workers

Anyone who has been in the IT job market in the last few years will have noticed an increasing amount of references to "people skills" in job advertisements. Sometimes recruiters talk up "soft" skills when describing the requirements to applicants. What they mean is beyond technical skills, IT workers are increasingly being expected to have strong communications skills.

In my experience, employers are giving this topic lip service far more than placing real value on this set of skills. Partly, this is because it can be quite difficult to quantify someone's ability to communicate - hence the name "soft" skills. Standard parts of a job description are usually easier to quantify - they are "hard" skills.

If you have a degree, this suggests at least a basic level of competency (whether this is accurate or not is another matter); you can be set standard programming tasks to test your coding skills; your ability to put together a specification can be evaluated if you're an analyst; your ability to put together a project plan can be tested if you're a project manager; your ability to lie to little old ladies and hurt babies can be tested if you're in marketing.

So why are communications skills being focused on in IT roles where this has not traditionally been a prime requisite. In short, this is one of the biggest problems in the IT industry worldwide. The breakdown in communication between the business/management side and the IT side derails far more projects than it should. Competent or even perfect technical execution is no guarantee of success in the corporate world. If the people side of the equation is not managed then life for IT workers is far harder than it needs to be.

Here's the good news: communications skills are easier to learn than IT skills. I think the reason the burden of communication is being increasingly placed on IT workers is that the non-IT people have hit a dead-end. IT has become so complex and changes so quickly that business people think they don't have a chance of understanding what's going on. They don't even know how to ask the right questions.

Taking on this role shouldn't be seen as an additional burden by IT workers. This is a golden opportunity. A chance to drive IT decisions in a direction you think is appropriate. Not to mention an opportunity to further your career (if that's the way you want to go). So here are my fundamental keys to communications success for IT workers:

Get used to talking to people. You can't communicate if you're scared of talking to people. The old stereotype of introverted IT people is not without basis. My observation over the years is that IT is filled with people who suffer a massive deficit between their intelligence and their ability to communicate (i.e. they're really smart but have trouble communicating the value of their intelligence).

So presenting to meetings at work scares you. Deal with it. Do something scarier in front of people. The IT group where I work currently runs a "Toastmasters" speaking group. If you want something really terrifying, try stand-up comedy (trust me on this one). Start a band. Sing karaoke. Do SOMETHING that involves being in front of people. Don't underestimate how important this is to a successful career.

Don't mumble! It's appalling how many IT people are "low talkers". Fair or not, if people have trouble understanding you they'll stop listening. Mumbling is usually a sign of lack of confidence - in a business setting it will often be taken as a lack of confidence in what you are saying, not a lack of confidence in speaking itself. You don't have to be the loudest voice in the room but make sure you don't mumble.

Move your lips when you talk. Words don't come out properly if you don't articulate correctly. This is a close relative of mumbling but it isn't all about volume. It's an order of magnitude harder to understand what you're saying if you don't use your lips and tongue to form words. God forbid you might be the type who talks without parting your teeth. I had to deal with this the other day - I barely took in a word he said, all I could think was "Open your damn mouth when you talk!"

Vary your pitch and rhythm. Another way to make sure nobody pays attention to what you say is to talk in a monotone. It's so boring listening to someone who talks in a constant, droning level - it ends up taking on the quality of an annoying background noise like a hard drive that whirrs too loudly. Vary your pitch and inflection to make points and just to stay interesting. And don't be afraid of silence - the occasional pause after making a point is an extremely powerful way of giving additional weight to your point.

Adjust your communication for your audience. Jargon is almost always a bad idea. Too often, jargon and technical language is used by people to cover the fact they don't really know what they're talking about. Prove you know what you're doing by explaining it in clear, unambiguous language.

Get your written communication right too. The exact tone of your emails and other written communication will be dictated by the standards of your particular workplace but here are some standards that will improve how you are perceived wherever you work. Spell check everything before you send it. If it's important review it manually to find the things your spell-checker missed (it's even better if you can get another person to proof read for you). No matter how relaxed you think your workplace is, NEVER EVER use "leet-speak" or text abbreviations. It looks terrible and is almost always guaranteed to get you written off as someone who's not making a serious contribution. Do not underestimate the importance of this point. Seriously. Just don't do it.

A lot of IT workers, particularly those immersed in the programming part of the cycle, will be wondering why this is important to them. Isn't the only requirement that they produce and ship quality code? Well, if you never want to advance, that's a fine attitude.

And I'm not talking simply about people who want to move into management. If you want to have a say in the technical direction of your company, if you want to improve the quality of your work life, if you want people to understand the simple fact that you are actually doing quality work, you need to learn to communicate. Particularly with non-technical people.

It may not be in the safety of your comfort zone but simply getting out of your cubicle and talking to people is one of the best ways to improve your prospects. You're not going to turn into an award-winning public speaker overnight but honestly, it's almost certainly going to be easier than you fear. You have nothing to lose but the poor reputation IT people have for communicating and you have everything to gain.

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