Do you sometimes have difficulty talking to your non-technical clients, coworkers, and bosses? Do they continually say things to you that just don’t make any sense? Do they ask for the completely impossible as if they’re ordering a cup of coffee? Do they demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of what they’re talking about?
If you answered, yes, to any of these questions, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Even as many people work to make coding a more common skill, there remains a huge gulf between the software development community and many of the people they work with... and work for.
I’ve had trouble with this issue many times over the years, even though I’m ostensibly a professional communicator as well as a developer. So I set about to collect some of the more ridiculous things that developers hear all too often—coupled with some suggestions on responses that could help build some common ground between technical and non-technical types.
- “I need my new website to be on the first page of Google.” “This is a very common question when people call us for a new website,” laments Courtenay Rogers, director of account management at Nashville-based consultants Atiba.com. “This shows they may not understand paid versus organic search, or even how Google or domain names work at the most basic level. Our challenge is to explain this to them with basic concepts so we can proceed with the project.” Her firm has held day-long training sessions for clients to bring them up to speed and even has a section of its website that lists qualifications both in geek speak and human speak. How to respond: Suggest methods for improving site optimization and best practices for bot-legible copy.
- “There is no money for updates.” This whopper shows how far off the mark a company’s thinking can stray. Developers know development isn’t just a one-shot activity. “I always ask my clients who is going to be doing the updating once we finish with the project,” says Rogers. “That way I can gauge what kind of project we are going to be developing for them. You build a very different site for an experienced in-house developer to maintain versus having an occasional volunteer.” How to respond: Suggest working together to figure out how to put updates into the development budget so the site will still be fresh in six months.
- “I don’t know how to code, that’s your job.” Of course they don’t have to know how to code, but many don’t even know enough to feel confident talking with a developer. Scott Friedman, UCLA's chief technologist for research computing, teaches the Talk Like a Programmer class at the Bay Area’s General Assembly several times a year. His goal is to empower students to talk to technical people and make better decisions. “They don’t want to do any coding themselves,” he says about his typical student. “They just want to be able to express themselves without turning off a developer because they may not use the correct technical term.” How to respond: Tell them that while their statement is true, there are a few concepts that they should learn (and that you’d be happy to teach them) which will help you understand each other better.
- “I want to use only off-the-shelf code, no custom HTML.” Again, this shows a huge disconnect about how things actually work. “Education is a huge part of our discovery process,” says Rogers, referring to the initial period where her team is interviewing a potential client about a new gig. “We ask a lot of questions and understand where they are coming from, what are their business goals, and what kinds of in-house talent they already have before we start working on anything.” How to respond: Explain to them that even the most suitable pre-written code will require some customization.
- “I heard open source is the way to go.... make sure everything is open source.” This is a big flip from just a few years ago, when many non-programmers thought open source had no place in the business world. But the rise of open source means that commercial software no longer has a role. How to respond: Find out exactly why they are interested in open source and figure out where it would be most appropriate.
- “We just need our existing website/application from X years ago to be updated.” This is a huge issue, especially where X > 10. Clients don’t always understand that technology has evolved dramatically, and new tools, techniques, and add-ons have made many outdated sites and apps unworthy of updating. Just because someone doesn’t want to spring for a whole new site doesn’t mean that the existing one can be updated. How to respond: Explain that while a quick update would indeed be nice, it won’t be cost-effective and you’d probably be better off rewriting it from scratch.
- “When can you start coding our project?” Clients and bosses always want programmers to start work right away. What they don’t realize is that you can’t just start slinging code before you fully understand the project’s needs and context. It doesn’t make sense to write code when you don’t even know what problem you’re trying to solve. How to respond: Tell them that coding will start as soon as you understand their goals and what they’re trying to accomplish.
- “Can you turn my website into an iPhone or Android app?” The answer is usually, “yes, but not at the push of a button.” But the question may reveal a need that would be better served by a responsive website that adapts to the device on which it’s being viewed. How to respond: Acknowledge the fact that it’s possible, but first talk about their mobile goals to find the best ways to serve mobile users.
- “We need a new frontend/backend to our site.” When it comes to programming, many non-programmers literally don’t understand which end is up. Be specific, be thorough, and be patient so you can simplify concepts and not bury someone in a lot of information. “Web technology is moving very fast,” reminds Friedman. There are new programming languages, new Web-based apps, and many people have a lot of holes in their knowledge about these things.” That doesn’t mean they’re stupid, it just means they need your help. How to respond: Find out what problem they’re trying to solve with this new front- or backend.
Of course, the crazy things that non-programmers say to programmers seemingly just to drive them crazy are only half of the conversation. Equally important are the things that non-programmers should never say to programmers, as well as what programmers say in return. Or, sometimes, don’t say:
- Top 20 Things You Won't Hear a Programmer Saying, from MIStupd.com
- Sh*t Developers DON’T Say, from Mindscape HQ