Speak English and STFU

Yesterday I wrote about Guy Kawasaki’s list of steps to brand your products and yourself. Some of those ideas are directly applicable to a system administrator.

Like speaking English.

There are two unforgivable curses that will damn any techie that uses them: speaking in tongues, and always getting the last word in.

Tongues? Yes, tongues.

Marketing Droid: Why didn’t the new web site go up last night?

Sysadmin: Well, the problem was that the DNS zone file didn’t get a new serial number, so the changes we made last night to the A records didn’t propagate out to the slave name servers.

By now the marketing droid is twitching and going insane, and there is a 100% chance that they’re going to go back to their group and their boss and badmouth you. See it from their point of view: they were sent to find out what happened and they are going to fail in their mission, because they have no idea what you said. Something about slavery, and serial numbers. They are too insecure to ask for an explanation, so when they get back they’ll make something up, which is bad. Don’t make them ask — just explain!

If you are in doubt, ask yourself if your parents would have understood what you’ve just said. Did it have an acronym in it? Yeah? You’d better rephrase your answer. Maybe add a small explanation of the system that failed. Your explanation doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate, just get the point across without being completely inaccurate and without *any* condescension:

Marketing Droid: Why didn’t the new web site go up last night?

Sysadmin: Are you familiar with DNS?

Marketing Droid: Not really.

Sysadmin: DNS stands for ‘domain name system’ and it’s the system that computers use to find web servers and stuff on the Internet. When we make a change to this system we have to follow a procedure to tell everything else on the Internet that we made the change. We didn’t get it quite right, and the computers all over the world didn’t know to look at the new web site, just the old one.

Marketing Droid: Oh, I see. Did you guys get it fixed?

Sysadmin: Yup, and we also made sure that it’ll be harder for us to mess this up in the future.

Much better. If you use the word ‘we’ you sound authoritative, and if you explain what was broken they can explain it to their people. You get bonus points for mentioning that you are proactively fixing the problem. Want to seem like an absolute god?

Sysadmin: If you want to wait a second I’ll type up what I just told you and email it to you.

Marketing Droid: Oh, that’d be great!

The next thing techies have to work on comes at this point in the conversation: shut your mouth. People love it when they get the last word, and they subconsciously like you more when you let them have it. You haven’t pissed the other person off, you haven’t made them feel dumb, so count your blessings and STFU. It will seem odd, and you will have this overwhelming urge to say something. Don’t. It takes about 30 days to break yourself of this habit, so start now. Learn to smile more and say a sincere “Thanks for stopping by!”

If you were arguing with someone else about something you are absolutely not going to want them to have the last word. It will seem like you have lost the argument. You didn’t. Be the bigger person and end the thing, and then STFU completely about it unless you’re going to discuss it with your boss. Besides, when you’re arguing with an idiot it is impossible to tell which one of you is the idiot.

Your homework for the day: pick the most complex individual system you work with and come up with a paragraph explanation of how it works that your mother would understand. Do not use any acronyms. Have your boss grade you on your attempt. After your boss grades you, smile, say “Okay, cool, thank you!,” and leave with no further discussion. If you get a grade below a B pick another system and repeat.