Careers & Certifications

09:00 AM
Thomas LaRock
Thomas LaRock
Commentary
50%
50%

Breaking Down Silos: Soft Skills Required

These tips will help build your communication and soft skills, breaking down the silos IT departments have built.

It all started with a simple question.

"What's a table?" my nine-year-old daughter asked me during a session I was giving at SQL Saturday #184 last year.

Now, I know that my daughter has the innate ability to ask questions just for the sake of being difficult. But, in this case, I believed she was genuinely curious. So I did my best to answer and explain it to her in a way a nine-year-old could understand.

"A table is a logical representation of data on disk," I told her. She still didn't get it. I tried a few more sentences, but nothing seemed to click. So we agreed that I would explain it to her later on the car ride home, and I went on with my session.

There is a quote floating around the Intertubz that states, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." The quote is often wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein, who is more likely to have said that "all physical theories, their mathematical expressions apart, ought to lend themselves to so simple a description that even a child could understand them."

As a former teacher, I know that if a student does not understand a topic, then it is my job to find a way to help them understand. The easiest way to get that done is to explain concepts using objects, words, and phrases that are familiar. That's what I did during the car ride home, getting to the point that my daughter understood how data is stored in a file on a disk and what it means to be a table.

And that's when it hit me: This is how silos get built. Silos within IT departments are a product of the inherent lack of ability for teams to communicate with one another. Not because they don't want to, but because they can't. They don't have the communication skills, the soft skills, the same user experiences, the same motivations, or even speak the same language.

We've all been in those meetings. Twenty or more people sitting around a table all engaged in a fierce blamestorming session. Meanwhile, the website is down, everything has come to a full stop, and instead of trying to fix the problem everyone is doing their best to make sure they are not going to be blamed. 

I could have easily just told my daughter, "Look, you don't understand this because you're nine years old," and continued with my session. But by doing so I would be laying the foundation for our own silos. And yet that is what happens in IT departments everyday. People throw up their hands and say, "You just don't understand because you're you and I'm me."

As unproductive as this has been, it's downright dangerous in the increasingly on-demand, always-connected world we now live in. End-user expectations are higher than ever. Fast response times and flawless performance are now table stakes. 

As IT evolves and converges to serving applications, context is key -- it's not only about managing IT infrastructure such as servers, networking, virtualization, storage, databases, etc. It's about how IT infrastructure works together in the context of application performance and user experience that is critical, but such an approach simply cannot be successful with the traditional silos in place. At the end of the day, performance is what matters, and IT teams will need to work seamlessly together to achieve its delivery.

So, what can you do to help make things better? The following three tips will help build up your communication and soft skills and break down the silos we see in every IT department:

If you want to learn something, try teaching it
The best way to learn something is to try to explain it to others. And while having a nine-year-old might be the perfect target market, not everyone has that luxury. But most of us have co-workers. Try teaching something to them, maybe by hosting a brown-bag lunch session. For example, have someone from the storage team explain RAID levels, or a developer explain Visual Studio projects, or your database administrator explain waits and queues. 

Develop a sense of empathy
No, I'm not talking about Commander Deanna Troi. She was empathic; that's different. I'm asking for you to develop empathy for the people in the other silos. In my example above, it is easy for me to talk to my child because I know the things she is most familiar with. Plus, I've been a child, too, so that helps. But how can someone in IT relate to someone in finance?

Empathy, that's how. The best way to develop empathy is to talk to people. Find out what their priorities are, their concerns, their motivations. If possible, spend a day shadowing them so you can understand their world a bit more. For example, have your database administrator shadow a person in finance so he or she can get an idea of the applications they're using the most, the ones that are most critical, and the ones they need the most help with.

When you develop a sense of empathy, you will find that the nature of your conversations changes for the better.

Get involved
There are lots of local groups you can find through places like MeetUp, or associations like PASS and INETA. Find a group or event happening near you, or maybe look to participate in online forums, sites like this one, user groups, and events. But do something, because doing something is better than doing nothing. The more people you meet, the more opportunities you have to connect, learn, and share. You get to see how other companies are tackling the same issues you are facing and know what has worked and what didn't. It can be comforting to know that the deployment of a new piece of stock trading software encountered the same issues; it may serve as validation that you had done everything correctly and the software still wouldn't work properly. 

There's no question that people with hard skills are always going to have a place in IT somewhere. But hard skills have a ceiling; you are always going to be able to find someone else with similar skills, for a similar price. Good communication and soft skills have no ceiling. They will always have more value than hard skills. 

Hard skills lead to the creation of silos, and soft skills are how silos are avoided. And for those who want to survive in the application-centric future of IT, they're simply a must.

As a Head Geek for SolarWinds, Thomas works with a variety of customers to help solve problems regarding database performance tuning and virtualization. He has over 15 years of IT experience, holding various roles such as programmer, developer, analyst and database ... View Full Bio
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
PaulS681
50%
50%
PaulS681,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2014 | 8:03:19 PM
Re: Insightful
There is alot to be said for knowing your audiance.
MarciaNWC
50%
50%
MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2014 | 7:23:05 PM
teach to learn
I like tip #1 here: "The best way to learn something is to try to explain it to others." I used to cover a lot of security technology, and when a family member asked me, "What is PKI?" I struggled for coherent explanation. I went back and read more on PKI.
Susan Fogarty
50%
50%
Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2014 | 10:42:49 AM
Re: Insightful
Paul, talking over people's heads is a big one! Also leaving out any type of context, so you explain the details of some technology, but the listener still has no idea where or when you would use it. I see that happen a LOT. And I understand why -- it's very hard to know they level of understanding the listener has, and to adjust an explanation to that. I talk to a lot of technology experts in my job, and it always is more beneficial for me when the expert asks me up front how much I know, and then tries to tailor the explanation to my level. 
PaulS681
50%
50%
PaulS681,
User Rank: Strategist
9/7/2014 | 7:17:33 PM
Re: Insightful
I concur with Susan... These soft skills can be used in so many different professions and just proves that communication is one of the most important aspects in life.

In IT it's very important because it is so easy to talk over someone's head. Breaking it down into simple terms takes skill, and one you need to work at.
Susan Fogarty
50%
50%
Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
9/4/2014 | 4:08:39 PM
Insightful
Thomas, thanks for this insightful post. I think your tips could apply to most professions and a lot of different aspects of life, not just IT. And in many ways, the more hyperconnected and mobile we get, they more superficial our communication becomes. I find for myself that it's hard to get large chunks of people time and it is hard to have the kind of meaningful communication that you're suggesting here.

Our company does have something it encourages that we call "ditloc" -- day in the life of a customer (or client). It's similar to the shadowing idea you write about. It is very time intensive, but can make a huge difference in how you approach your work.
Cartoon
Slideshows
Audio Interviews
Archived Audio Interviews
Jeremy Schulman, founder of Schprockits, a network automation startup operating in stealth mode, joins us to explore whether networking professionals all need to learn programming in order to remain employed.
White Papers
Register for Network Computing Newsletters
Current Issue
Video
Twitter Feed