Friday, October 10, 2008

About Clear Communications

Like everyone else I like to rant once in a while. I rant about the shortcomings in Oracle software, the tools and technologies I work with. But this time I want to rant about a decisively non-technical topic. Arguably it is something that everyone must have felt - at least once. It's about communicating clearly. Why don't people do it? Why don't they articulate whatever they are trying to say. Instead they spit out incoherently with thoughts coming across as sloppily slapped together expecting the other person to somehow put it all together. I am not talking about children; these are responsible adults who supposedly make up policies and act as thought leaders. Unclear thoughts and communication not only frustrates people; but is dangerous. It misdirects efforts leading to wastage and often utter failure.

Today I had on the receiving end of such a travesty. Earlier, a manager of an application team wrote to me this email (reproduced verbatim) about a requirement:

We are having a shortage of capabilities on the servers. So we want to increase the capabilities somehow. What do you recommend?

I was scratching my head. How can I comment or influence the capabilities of their applications? Perhaps they are asking about some limitations which might be solved by some Oracle technology features. So, I called them for a quick chat. After half hour I still wasn't clear about what limitations they are trying to solve.

And then, after one hour, I got it: they are talking about capacity; not capability! And not only that it's about the database server; not the app server. [Trying to pull my hair out at this time]

My recommendation would have been to send them to an English school; but, being occasionally wise, I kept it to myself.

OK; let's move on. I promised to have a DBA look at the capacity issue.

And a DBA did. Sme days went by and it apprently reached a boiling point. I was told nothing has been done by the DBA and, well, that's not acceptable. so, I intervened. I asked the DBA for her side of the story. It was pretty simple - the CPU, I/O are all normal, way below utilization. The growth projections were eight times. Yes, eight times. So, the DBA made a request for the increase in capacity and that's where the friction has started. No one anticipated the eight fold increase; so there is simply no room. Stalemate!

As the head of database architecture, I question any growth projections, especially ones that go up 8 times. And I did. Here was the response "we are running on 2 legs and we will run on 16 legs in the near future".

2 legs?!!! What is that? What is a leg?

As it turns out, the application is running 2 java virtual machines. the app architects are recommending to run 16 JVMs to add redundancy and distribute local processing. From the database perspective, that means 2 clients now will become 16; but the overall processing will *not* go up.

Instead of saying that in plain English, the App manager coined a term "leg" to describe the issue in apprently in some technical way. This was communiated to his management chain, which in turn interpreted it as 8 fold increase in processing and demanded that we create 7 more databases. They approved the new "databases" and allocated the budget. But since the friction came with a member of my team, I became involved. As I always do, I questioned the decision and that's how the truth came out, which in turn also cleared the mystery behind the "capability" story described above.

All these hoopla about people not communicating in a clear manner. Adding 16 more clients should have simple enough to connvery even to the mail guy; calling it "legs" confused every one, wasted time and increased frustration. If I hadn't questioned it, it would have been implemented too. 7 more databases doing nothing to solve the issues present.

Communication is all about articulation and presentation of thoughts. The key is empathy - put yourself in the recipient's shoes and try to look at what you are saying from that persepctive. It's not about English (or whatever the language used); it's about the clarity of thought process. Granted not everyone will be able to present the thought process equally coherently while speaking; but what about writing? There is no excuse for not writing coherently, is there? The only reason for being incoherent is just a I-don't-care attitude. Of course, there are other things - unfamilairity with the language used, lack of time, environment (typing on the blackberry with one finger while cooking with the other hand), state of mind (typing out the report while waiting for the third drink to arrive at the bar); but most of the time it's just plain lack of empathy. If you don't have that, you just don't communicate; at least not effectively. And when you don't communicate, you fail, regardless of your professional stature.

As Karen Morton once said during a HotSos Symposium, and a mantra I took to heart and live by the lines everyday:

Knowledge and Experience Makes you Credible
Ability to Communicate Effectively makes you Useful

Useful - that's what I and you want to be; not just credible. Thank you, Karen.


Ignacio Ruiz said...

Guess this is related to mindsets... however, we as technical professionals have a handicap: interpersonal comunication, as your real-life example shows...

We are great telling the server "Send an email everyday at 1am with all database status", because we write a set of scripts, which are instructions composed by words, from a very narrow subset of english language... we may say, sometimes we get some kind of "language disfunction" ...or "reduction".

How do we overcome that? I may suggest a simple exercise, that you already hinted in your story: the receiver of the message (the member of your team) needed to say what he understood for the requirement, starting an oral process that solved all doubts and ambiguities, until the sender of the message (the apps guy) and the receiver have the same idea. The other option is accept requests properly documented, with full description and and white, putting ideas on paper is a good "bizarre language creativity" filter.

I've to say, that this is more uncommon with people more socialy oriented, like P&O managers, marketing professionals, publicists,politics or writers... in that order they specialize on getting their ideas to a broader audience, and they need to be successful from the first time, cause there isn't a second chance... so, we may conclude that mastering our language is a must, assuring our idea is well projected, our goal.

PS: I concur with your English course proposal...adding a literature discussion group, perhaps.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments, Ignacio. However that is exactly my point. This is not about language, at least not the constructs of the language used anyway; it's just that careless attitude that is to blame. The communicator should understand that the theme must be conveyed clearly and articulated properly. The onus lies with the sender more thna the receiver. On the other hand, if the sender feels just the opposite - that the receiver should bear the burden of processing the propagated communique accurately - well, that sort of akin to broadcasting without checking whether the audience has even switched on the radio!

skymaster said...

Hello Arup,

Excellent synopsis of the current state of affairs with respect to technical communication. I empathize with your experiences. As an undergraduate student of Anthropology and Linguistics before my venture into technology, I learned the interesting science of language and communications. I fear that many technical folks suffer from Asperger syndrome hence the poor communication skills we see nowadays in the technology field!

Aman.... said...

Haha Thanks for a good laugh Arup. I could feel the pain, really! But on a serious note, yes you are absolutely right. At times, people do use those kind of (buzz)keywords which only they understand.
2 Legs!ROFL

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