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Over the Communication Barrier: How to Talk to Programmers

In a vocabulary crash course, computer scientist Scott Friedman told non-technical people how to talk technology.
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It goes without saying that clear communication within a company is key. There's just one problem. As a non-technical manager, how do you hire -- let alone communicate with -- a group of people who literally work in a different language? In other words, how can you talk like a programmer if you're not a programmer? 

Talking Like a Programmer

To start, you need to get the basic terms down cold. San Francisco's General Assembly, an international educational institution that teaches technology skills, offers a single two-hour crash course on tech vocabulary for non-programmers. This week, I sat in on the session, along with about 80 other non-programmers. 

Course instructor Scott Friedman, PhD, chief technologist at UCLA, explained why it's so important to get the terms straight. "If you mess something up, what happens? Wall comes down. 'You're an idiot. I'm not talking to you anymore,'" he said, imitating a fed up programmer. "To programmers distinctions matter," Friedman said. 

This stems from the fact that computers are useless machines unless their users are precise. Likewise, programmers are precise people, and you need to respect that as much as you can, Friedman said. So learn the lingo. That's step one. 

Talking to a Programmer 

Step two is the fun part -- actually taking programmers. Friedman spent the last quarter of the class discussing how to find and hire the best programmers. He acknowledged that for non-technical founders, hiring can be difficult because there's little else to go on but a gut feeling. However, pay close attention to that gut feeling, he advised.  

"If someone is giving you a bad vibe, move on. There are plenty of programmers out there, particularly people doing this kind of work," Friedman said. He outlined three other tips for vetting your candidates: 

Check references. You should always talk to other people who have hired them, especially if those managers are technical people and can really vouch for the candidate's work. 

Look at their work. Have them show you other things they've done, and ask them what their specific contributions to the project were. If it's a complex web page, it's unlikely that they designed the entire thing by themselves. If they tell you they did, they could be lying. 

Don't be intimated. Yes, they're smart but so are you. 

"Once you find this person, believe me, you'll know. It's like dating or anything else," Friedman said. "But don't let outstanding be the enemy of pretty good. Because in the end you need to get something done."

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Dec 10, 2013

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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