Talking the Talk: Communicating with IT
by Lisa A. Ennis
Often in interactions between library folks and IT folks, I'll suddenly find myself in the role of Capt. Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation as I try to get two very different delegations to see eye to eye on any number of topics. The delegations, like the alien cultures of Star Trek, have very different world views, belief systems, mores, and even languages—in short, the groups just have different ways of viewing the world.
The Problem of Communication
In my case, I've been on both sides of this dynamic. I received my A+ computer technician certification the year after completing my library degree. I've worked an IT help desk, maintained servers in an IT department for a health center, been an instruction and reference librarian, done some cataloging, and I am now a systems librarian. Through these experiences, I've discovered the hardest part is not the technology or dealing with individuals but in being a translator and diplomat between the non-IT staff members and all the technology outfits that organizations must deal with on a day-to-day basis. I've found that the crux of the issue is frequently centered on language. Here are a couple of examples:
The head of a department wants the library catalog to behave differently, and the vendor support team explains that the wanted change cannot be implemented because that particular part of the program is "hard coded." The librarian responds, "Well, if that is too hard for you to do, why can't we hire an expert to fix it?" So I have to explain that "hard coded" doesn't mean it is "difficult" but instead means the catalog is made that way, and what she is asking for is the equivalent of asking the Department of Transportation to move the interstate so she has a more direct route to work.
The library would like space on a server to install WordPress, the popular blogging software. IT has installed it, but people can't comment because the network folks feel that allowing the general public to post comments is a security risk; they can't understand why we'd want people to comment anyway.
- We have a number of database-driven webpages. A reference librarian wants to be able to link to a specific category appropriate to her liaison area instead of to the main link that gives all the content. She asks the web person for a PURL, but to the web person a PURL is much more complicated than one link to an SQL/PHP-defined category. Confusion over what a PURL is ensues.
Miscommunications and misunderstandings surrounding common words that have one meaning in library-speak and a different meaning in IT-speak are all too common. There are tons of books on communicating; one could spend a career reading them all. What I'm offering here is a recommendation for one book that has helped me the most and 10 tips to help you make your life with IT a bit easier.
First, the Book
The book is Verbal Judo, which sounds like learning to fight with words. But Judo actually means the "gentle way," and the book, by George J. Thompson, focuses on using communication to avoid fighting; in fact the subtitle is The Gentle Art of Persuasion. The book focuses on phrasing questions in ways that get you the best possible results. It may seem like psychobabble, but the book is loaded with a ton of good, common-sense advice.
Second, the Tips
The 10 tips that follow are easy things you can do that will give you a head start on communicating better and more effectively with IT folks.
Is everything plugged in and is the power on? I've been on both ends of this question. I once had a program director get very upset with me because I asked if the monitor in question was plugged in. After receiving a tongue lashing, I drove across a large city to find that indeed the monitor was plugged in, but the surge protector the monitor was plugged into was not plugged into the wall. Computer technicians have a list of common things they are required to check before they can assume a piece of equipment is defective. So go ahead and check all the power cords, all the way to the wall, and make sure the power buttons are in the "on" position. And remember when you are asked questions that seem to insult your intelligence, the techs are required to ask those questions. They aren't really trying to imply that you are stupid or incompetent, so be a good sport about it. It is really not much different from a doctor asking if you have a fever when you tell him that you don't feel well.
Make sure ALL cables are properly seated. This is along the same lines as checking the power. With day-to-day use, PCs and peripherals often get moved or even kicked around, and if one of those cables gets just a little loose, weird things can happen. Also, make sure you have everything plugged into the right spot. I recently had a tech come look at my laptop because the microphone wasn't working; it turned out I had plugged it into the speaker jack. Yep, I was real proud, but I remembered to laugh at myself and not take my frustration or embarrassment out on my tech. Don't be afraid to look at the back of the PC to make sure everything looks plugged in firmly.
Try rebooting. Computers get stuck and confused too! Sometimes when you've had lots of programs open and have been working on a variety of things, the software can just hang up. Computers operate using very specific instruction sets, and if just one little piece of those instructions gets out of order or dropped, then things may not behave as expected. Often simply rebooting will clear all the processes and resolve the issue. This usually works well with network-type issues as well. When a network has a hiccup, computers often lose connections that restore after rebooting. So give that a try since 99 times out of 100 the technician is going to ask you to reboot anyway.
Write down the error or problem as exactly and with as much detail as you can. There are umpteen bazillion computer errors, and they often differ by a single number or letter in a 50-character line (slight exaggeration). The EXACT error message is critical. If you can get that error message exactly as it appeared, you'll be a long way toward a quicker solution. The same goes for what you were doing when you got the error. Being able to show the tech, or walk the tech through, what you were doing when the error occurred can be extremely helpful. Also, depending on the state of your computer, try and get a screen shot of the error. (TIP: To get a screen shot in Windows, depress the Ctrl key and select the Print Screen button, which is usually located on the top right of the keyboard. Then, open Word and hit paste. You should have a nice picture of your desktop.)
Keep things clean. Take this both literally and figuratively. First, make sure you take care of the physical equipment. Keep your computer as dust-free as possible. Dust can cause short circuits and clog your computer's delicate moveable parts. Another good practice is to keep pets away and not smoke around your computer. There are dozens of websites that offer advice, but the general rule is to clean your PC inside and out about every 3 to 5 months. The same goes for your data and your desktop. Keeping your files well-organized is always a bonus.
Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion
by George J. Thompson. The book was first published in 1993; any edition will do.
Tech Tips for Every Librarian
column in Computers in Libraries
Peachpit Press (www.peachpit.com)
QuickStart and QuickPro guides on all sorts of topics
CNET Networks (www.cnet.com)
|A word to systems people: All this doesn't mean the burden isn't still on you! I've worked hard in my present position to create an environment where people aren't afraid to ask questions or reboot on their own. Even on days when I'm pushed for time or just don't feel well, I make an effort not to let that frustration show, and I will tell you why: I'm not here for the technology; I'm here for the people. Have you ever been around a "systems person" whose response to your question was a big ol' "I can't believe you just asked that-why are you in my office-why don't you learn something" sigh? I don't ever want to be that "systems person."
Install software responsibly. It is really easy to download trial and free software, but with this great power comes great responsibility. First, make sure you are installing software from a reputable source, and then only install software that you need. When you install software, often those programs attach themselves to other programs, they take up space and resources, and even when you uninstall programs, they've left footprints in your system that continue to take up space and possibly resources. For instance, there is a particular screen-capture program that, with the default installation settings, will attach to all Office programs. This means that when you launch any of those Office programs, you are also launching the screen-capture program, which means it takes longer for your Office programs to start and uses more memory and processing power. Aside from the potential to inadvertently download malicious software, installing and uninstalling of software also affects your hard drive. When you save anything to a hard drive, the system starts with the first unused area on the hard drive, continues until it comes to a used space, then hops over the used space to the next available space. As you install and uninstall, your hard drive becomes fragmented, meaning that programs aren't installed in one long blank section of the hard drive but over multiple small, unused areas. So running the program takes longer and causes more wear and tear because the little arm, the actuator arm, has to jump all around to read the data on the disk. (TIP: When installing software, use the custom install and pay attention to what is getting installed and where.)
Learn some basic terminology. Everyone has heard the benefits of having a powerful vocabulary, and this is certainly true when it comes to communicating with computer people. I've certainly run into various technicians who simply will not answer your question unless you ask it using the correct terminology (Grrrrrrrr). Take the time to learn the language. Where I work there is a very active university training program which offers free classes to employees. I've found that even if I take a class on a topic that I may never get to practically apply in real life, just the vocabulary I've gained has helped me phrase questions and requests better, making the class worthwhile. There are also tons of books and websites that are great references. Try explaining what you are trying to accomplish so that instead of presenting folks with a problem, you've presented them with a challenge.
Realize that sometimes the technology just doesn't do what you want it to do. We can put a man on the moon but cough syrup still tastes bad, and you can't make hardware or software do what it wasn't designed to do. Technology has limits; keeping that in mind will help keep your frustration in check. Also, instead of complaining to the tech that the software isn't working, try explaining what you are trying to do and ask if your software can do that; if not, ask what software you should get to accomplish the task.
BACK UP YOUR DATA! You can get new hardware and you can get new software, but there is no way to get that presentation you were working on back if you didn't have a backup. Most workplaces have networked drives that employ redundant backups. USE THEM.
Follow the golden rule and be nice. Try not to yell at the technicians. Being rude and nasty isn't going to get you anywhere. For instance, don't call up and say, "The computer is broken. This technology is all garbage," and then rant on about how awful life is. Try saying something like, "I think something is wrong. When I try to [whatever], this happens. Can you double check that I'm not doing something wrong?" Be patient and say thank you.
While reading one book and following these 10 items won't solve all your issues, they will help. Just being patient and keeping in mind that the same word may mean a totally different thing to a person in another field can go a long way.