Communicate with your geeks

Last week I was reading a blog post on Angry Aussie - 6 essential communication tips for IT workers and it set me to thinking:

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.

It's certainly a popular topic among the sort of blogs I read regularly (which, basically, is stuff that appears on programming reddit), and the prevailing wisdom seems to be that geeks need to improve their communication skills so that their ideas are better represented within the business they work for. I think this is good advice for for an individual in today's employment marketplace - if you want to get promoted (or even hired) improving your communication skills is more likely to bring results than improving your technical skills. What this blog post is about, however, is why this individual behaviour shouldn't be enshrined as a business-wide strategy.

Let us consider the stereotypical 'geek' and the stereotypical 'suit'. The 'geek' has great analytical skills and devotes his time to solving technical problems and generally tinkering with technology in order to better understand it. The 'suit' has great communication skills which he uses to schmooze fellow suits into beneficial business relationships (I'll leave the question of who it's beneficial to open for now). It turns out that the 'geek' and the 'suit' have trouble communicating with each other, as documented frequently across many blog posts, and, as I mentioned above, the solution is apparently for the 'geek' to learn better communication skills. So what we're really saying is that the 'geek' needs to sacrifice a portion of his technical skills so that he can learn to communicate with the 'suit'. Let me now introduce the things I started thinking after I read Angry Aussie's blog post:

  • Do we really want our technical experts becoming less technical?
  • If the business people already have such great communication skills, why can't they communicate with the technical experts?

To expand on the first point - the simplifying assumption is that your knowledge and skills are a zero-sum type thing, to become good at something new you have to devote time to it, which means less time devoted to keeping up with things you already know. So if our 'geek' wants to devote time to improving his communication skills this is going to take away from the time he spends tinkering with technology. You might want to argue that the time our 'geek' spends spouting off into the blogosphere echo chamber is time he could devote to something else with no impact on his technical skills, but I'm going to assume he gets some small benefit even from that.

The second point is the crux of my argument. It seems to be accepted wisdom that our 'suit' has great communication skills whereas our 'geek' doesn't. But what it looks like to me is that we have technical experts who can only communicate with other technical experts, and business people who can only communicate with other business people. That's not one group of people with great communication skills and one group of people with poor communication skills, that's two groups of people with equally bad communication skills. If a business's only solution to this problem is to turn the 'geek' half way into a 'suit' then their technology is going to suffer. Eventually a competitor is going to come along who's business people really do have great communication skills and they're going to get eaten for lunch. This new business is going to be able to leverage both ends - they have better technical people, because they're allowed to concentrate, and better business people, because their business people really are good communicators.

I realize this is something of a straw man argument, and in real life people's abilities are spread over a spectrum rather than the black and white examples above, but I think it's also clear that while improved communication skills can be advantageous for individuals in technical roles this doesn't absolve those in business roles from also making an effort.