Can you talk “Manager Dummy Speak?”

If you’ve seen the old science fiction television series “Firefly”, there was a scene where the engineer of the spaceship blabbers out a bunch of techno-jargon and the captain gives her a blank look and then says “I need that in Captain dummy speak”.

One of the tricks I adopted shortly after getting in management is hiding my technology credentials. Not that it is any mystery that I came up through the trenches, but over time I learned to not talk specifics about what I used to do. What would happen is that developers would try to talk to me in their usual language and then I would have to parse that down to plain English for my bosses or non-technical colleagues. I did this to myself since I was so desperate when I first moved to management to show how I used to be just like them. A huge mistake on many levels. The other problem that reared its head over time was that while I started to gain a better appreciation for the strategic view, I soon fell behind on specific technology concepts. If I talked to a software developer today I might be lucky to understand half of what they are talking about. I learned to leverage what I need from a software design and project management perspective but I stay away from anything beyond fundamental computer science concepts.

To help insulate myself from the techno-babble I began to ask my developers to put things in “Manager Dummy Speak”. This worked out well because it forced them to learn how to put what they were saying in plain English, improving their communication with non-technical co-workers. It solves a potential communication issue for me so that I am no longer trying to translate what they said. Also, it is self-effacing and demonstrating to my employees that I am aware I don’t know everything. A common problem I’ve had with many managers is their complete inability to admit they don’t know something.

The problem that many employees have, not just software developers, is they get so deep into jargon they bring it into their regular conversation. Management at certain levels may be aware of some of this jargon but for the most part have their own language they speak. Since it all sounds like English to the untrained ear this is where miscommunication happens.

As an employee, you need to learn how to talk to people above you. I say this even if you are in management yourself. Never assume they know the same language. Keep it simple and in plain English as much as possible. If you must use jargon explain it in a non-condescending way.

As a manager, you need to encourage your employees to use this approach, even if it means admitting you don’t know or don’t understand something they said. The boss I respected the most was the first one who didn’t let me techno-jargon him out of my cubicle. Even if you used to do the same job as your employees, you don’t live it the same way they do. As for clarification, get the employee to give you the plain English translation. Make it clear that you need their perspective and their expertise, it helps them realize they have importance and you can avoid misunderstanding when you pass the information along.

More than anything though, I think a lot of this lack of communication would be cleared up if more managers were willing to adopt some humility when dealing with their employees.

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Posted in Career Management, Managing Employees, Managing Up
4 comments on “Can you talk “Manager Dummy Speak?”
  1. Jen says:

    I’m not a manager, but I wish the some of my peers learned to communicate in plain English (well, Romanian). Talking with developers and testers is basically my job description and, with some people, I know I’m better off not asking them anything because I won’t understand it anyway. And it doesn’t even stop at programming jargon – I work for a company that makes financial software and it’s so rare to find someone who can explain the financial concepts at a level I can understand.

    (Also, calling Firefly an old TV series made me feel really old! And I’m not!)

    • Rob Aught says:

      If they really lose you, have them explain it again. Get specific if there was a term you didn’t understand. Make it clear that you may need to pass on the information to others and they may have even less understanding of the jargon than you do.

      This can be frustrating to people who are used to communicating in what is essentially a different dialect, but some good ones will understand the importance of using common language.

      I’m also involved with a lot of finance people currently I understand what you mean perfectly. I am usually dealing with other middle managers and have done exactly what I described to you. The funny thing about jargon is that often the people using it don’t even realize it.

      • Jen says:

        Eh, part of this is simply company culture: without programmers we wouldn’t have a software to sell, but documentation (i.e. my job) is not mandatory; therefore (in some people’s view) programmers’ time is more valuable and they don’t need to bother with the pesky tech writers who keep asking stupid questions. I have an advantage over my coworkers though: a programmer boyfriend who doesn’t work with me, but is very good at translation jargon to Jen-speak.

        By the way, I’m enjoying the blog and hoping it will make me understand my manager more. He is a good guy and a good manager, but sometimes he drives me up a wall because he’s so out of touch with the situation “on the ground”.

        • Rob Aught says:

          Glad you are enjoying the blog. Keep with it, I know it’s frustrating. I had a good relationship with our designated tech writer at a past company. Really liked this lady because she would bring in awesome homemade cookies.

          She was also very persistent and dogged about details. I would sometimes cringe the way the developers would explain things to her. Between her efforts, my direction, and eventually working with the developers to get the right information we actually were able to keep all of our documentation up-to-date.

          However, I’m a big believer in documentation so I know that’s not a typical experience. As a former consultant I always had to leave detailed docs behind and I’ve just carried the practice with me.

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