Smelly Communication: How Suits Should Assign Tasks to Geeks

Oliver White on how to improve understanding in a distributed work environment

The following post originally appeared on the ZeroTurnaround Company Blog -- join the rebellion!


Not unlike the great zebras and lions of the wild, the "Suits" (Marketing, Sales, Creative) and "Geeks" (Dev, Ops, Infra) in an IT company often face misunderstandings. When highly technical and less-technical employees in a fast-growing tech shop like ZeroTurnaround need to accomplish something jointly, good communication is clearly necessary, but it's not a one-sided thing.


There is a symbiotic relationship at play; the Suits are at least partly responsible for propagating the Geeks' natural habitat so that we can all work together in peace and take home a salary. The Geeks make the product and tell the Suits why it's good. The Suits then turn this into revenue and we all have jobs. Yay!


So how does it work in a distributed work environment, where most direct communication occurs over Skype? In a company where people are working in different offices on different continents, communication becomes naturally less efficient. While technology has been responsible for making a successful distributed work environment possible, I'm continually noticing that, like anti-virus software, solutions to communication struggles are always a few steps behind the next emerging challenges.


Examples of Smelly Communication (Unpleasant for Everyone)



My tree isn't the way I want it either...


Example 1: Infrastructure Smell


To: Infra Geek
From: Salesbot
Subject: $h*t!
Message: Oh crap. The promo codes aren’t working. Please fix ASAP!



To: Salesbot
From: Infra Geek
Subject: $h*t!
Reply: Please send URL


The Salesbot is like, WHAT? What freakin' URL is he talking about? Go try to use a promo code and see if it works! But from his perspective, the Infra Geek has been given no valid information that would allow him to proceed. Infra Geek is the deity in his own realm, where things follow the rules he has made. Salesbot's bug fix request is an obvious foreigner in Infra Geek's little world, and it's come wearing socks and sandals.


Example 2: Branding Smell


To: Java Warrior
From: Marketing Droid
Subject: Product name?
Message: Hey, your blog post about our new plug-in doesn't include the product name at all. Could you please add it in there and include URLs?



To: Marketing Droid
From: Java Warrior
Subject: Product name?
Message: What kind of URLs? Don't enough people already know about us?


I think it can be considered a rule of thumb these days that providing highly searchable channels for content distribution to all the little nooks and crannies of the interwebs is pretty important. It can be difficult to get geeks to see Marketing's perspective on the importance of using particular language (or "marketing speak") to enhance the impact of a blog post or product release announcement.


Example 3: Getting Data Smell


To: Operations Wizard
From: Marketing Droid
Subject: No emails!
Message: Um, this page is giving out free licenses of our software and not collecting any details about the people interested in our product. We need to get their names and email addresses, please implement!



To: Marketing Droid
From: Operations Wizard
Subject: No emails!
Message: Why do you want their email addresses? Letting people know about cool products that save them time and money is spam. I'd prefer if we never spoke to anyone who comes to our website. Many thanks.


OK, so maybe this last one is a bit exaggerated, but the essence is there. Geeks prefer to employ bizarre methods to get random trolls to somehow find out about our product (which, in their opinion, should also be completely free). Marketing (and with that, some ads and salesbots) is a "necessary evil" to certain people, but if your products are awesome and helpful to tens of thousands of Java developers, you shouldn't worry about telling people about them. After all, if no one ever found out about Angry Birds, how would you spend your time at the airport now?


IS THERE ANYTHING TO BE DONE?
Geeks prefer maximum efficiency in most things, which means that they will often ignore something presented ineffectively in their eyes, which ironically leads to business guys thinking that they don't get stuff done. What we're dealing with here is a fundamental gap in understanding between translating the language of business needs into the language of technical requirements. Here are three very simple ideas that have helped the ZeroTurnaround team:


1. Treat your colleagues like your customers
Good marketing droids should be able reach any audience with the appropriate language, tone, form etc. They are paid to do this, right? Why should it be any different in the office?


Here is what technical information a geek really needs to know–and should be provided:


• Which exact feature is not working?


• What is happening now, and what is the expected outcome?


• Where is a detailed test case that I can replicate on my own side to confirm the malfunction?


• And quite possibly: When will marketing people learn to properly describe a technical problem?


Sadly, many marketing guys honestly cannot believe that any more information than "Not working here!" is needed. But there will be the realization that although tech folks and marketing folks both breathe air and (often) speak the same language, mutual comprehension is by no means guaranteed. Using tools like FogBugz or Trac for task management is a huge help.


2. Don't be afraid to pick up the phone
Regardless of how much time is spent communicating via Tweets, posts and otherwise mass-audience directed blasts, remember that it is probably quicker just to pick up the phone. Free video chatting has been gloriously free for years (even though we still complain about the quality!). It's easy to wait around for an email reply, but the deluge of non-voice communication eventually bottlenecks.


3. Invest in face-time every so often
What I've found to work especially well is direct face-time (and not on a Mac). Spending time with someone you work with every day virtually but may have never met in the real world can do a lot, and cut down on task completion by hours, if not days.


For managers, this might mean flying your people around so that they can work at the same desk, then get slightly intoxicated together and possibly fight off some criminals wearing masks. You'll find that a couple of black eyes does a lot for rapport between two teams of different POVs. I'd like to say "Budgetary Considerations Be Darned!" but that's not really the way of it. Do your best, and try to see the hidden social benefits as a great excuse for an actual ROI.


Summary: The "Suits" (Marketing, Sales, Creative folks) and the "Geeks" (Devs, Ops and Infra folks) of an organization need to plan a communication strategy that includes smart writing, good task description, more face-time and the willingness to understand each others' POV to be successful working in geographically distributed offices.




About Oliver White

The Marketing Manager of ZeroTurnaround, Oliver was turned from a marketing droid into a real boy in mid-2010 when he joined the ZT team. While not a developer himself, he likes to simply gaze at code when not writing nine-thousand emails a day. Back when he had free time, Oliver liked books, films, dogs, large beef steaks, staring at large world maps and strolling through the deeply-forested parks of the Czech Republic, where he lives. You can connect with Oliver on LinkedIn.

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