TechMunch: Communicating complexity

At the heart of communications for technology lies a persistent requirement to make sense of the complex.

Having wrestled with my fair share of impenetrable technologies over the years I thought I would share some techniques that I find handy when translating the impassioned rantings of someone with a doctorate in electronics (or indeed the internal language widely repeated by marketing folk at large tech companies).

Break down acronyms:

This is a good place to start because at best the acronym is a lazy reference tool for those who are ready familiar with the thing to which someone is referring. At worst it’s designed to create an exclusive club of those in the know during conversation.

Technology is not the only community that likes acronyms but we certainly have more than our fair share of three, four or even five letter ones.  We also then like to riff on a theme (SaaS, PaaS, Iaas etc).  The best starting point for an acronym is to find out what it stands for (personally I like to ask the person who has used the acronym because I am a cruel person and they often don’t know).

Note: You know you are going a bit native when you find yourself enjoying the self-referential acronyms that are popular with geeks (e.g. GNU. Which stands for “GNU’s not UNIX”)

Question the cloud in the diagram:

Your friendly Professor Software Engineer has drawn you a handy diagram of the technology she has designed. At the heart of it is a fluffy cloud. Now, please ask her what that cloud is, because trust me when I tell you that it’s not a universal icon and therefore not a silly question to ask.

A cloud on a diagram can signify the internet, a network, a point of integration with someone else’s tech (where the other company’s tech is the cloud), a cloud service (!) … or just a particularly confidential bit of IP that they don’t want to reveal too much about.

Probably it will be something that isn’t even on my list here. Always question the cloud.

Ask for a simile:

I strongly believe that a simile (or – even better – a visual simile) is just about the most useful way to understand any technology.

Take MPLS (multi-protocol layer switching), a network technology.  Impenetrable words, dry acronym.  Now picture a toy train track (in my mind it’s Brio) where each train carries a little flag demonstrating the importance of its cargo.  Gold flags get priority at junctions. When gold trains have gone through, silver gets next priority, then bronze.   This is how MPLS works, prioritising different types of data on the same network.  Live video and voice might be gold flag cargo, internet traffic to and from YouTube might be … well, not prioritised at all.

The simile can also be a powerful tool for you to use after you have waded through a detailed technical description.  Repeating your professor’s technology back to them in the form of a simile can help you check you have understood correctly, and begin to demonstrate the requirement and opportunity for their descriptions to be more accessible.

Right, three tips is enough for anyone. TTFN, BRB.

Emily Murphy-Wearmouth, Director, Technology