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7 tips for sysadmins to improve communication skills

Don't let stereotypes define you. Everyone can improve their communication skills, and doing so can help not just in your work life, but also every other aspect.
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The notion that system administrators and other IT pros are social misfits who don’t work well with other humans is a stereotype. It’s a long-held one, too, mythologized both in corporate and popular culture.

Readers of a certain age might recall, for example, Jimmy Fallon’s recurring SNL sketch, Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy. (That particular episode first aired in 2001, to give a sense of the stereotype’s endurance.) Nick overcompensated for, um, questionable communication and interpersonal skills by doling out heaps of arrogance and condescension—borne of his superior IT knowledge—toward the non-technical end users in his office. Suffice it to say, Nick wasn’t an office favorite.

Perhaps this is an extreme example of the grumpy IT pro stereotype, but it fits a larger landscape of assumptions about sysadmins and other technical people: They’re all introverts or lack interpersonal skills that their colleagues in, say, marketing, have in spades. The truth is far more nuanced. Are some sysadmins introverts? Sure. So are plenty of people who do entirely other kinds of work. Moreover, being an introvert is not a bad thing—far from it.

There is, however, a perfectly reasonable basis for the notion that sysadmin and similar IT jobs attract certain personality types: There’s a lot of heads-down, hands-on work involved in implementing and maintaining IT systems.

"While it might be a stereotype that technical people tend to be introverts who prefer to work by themselves, the truth is that technical people do tend to have jobs where they’re focused on working on tasks that require concentration and cause us to have fewer human interactions," says Gloria Metrick, owner at GeoMetrick Enterprises, which implements software (such as the Laboratory Information Management System, or LIMS) in R&D and product testing laboratories. "These types of tasks don’t help people be more communicative."

That fact means that if you’re not a natural-born communicator, becoming a sysadmin won’t necessarily push you to become one. Take comfort, though: You’re not alone, and it’s most definitely not an IT-only thing.

"It’s a fallacy to assume that many people in this world are born as great communicators," Metrick says. "In fact, some extroverts are the worst communicators. Some of them think their automatic love of people allows them to understand what others want and need from them and that’s often false."

Put another way: A person who talks at every opportunity in a meeting doesn’t necessarily have great communication skills—it might just mean they talk a lot.

Still, Metrick and others note that strong communication skills are as necessary as ever, including for sysadmins and other hands-on IT practitioners. Metrick says she had to work at developing her own communication skills, both as a client-facing technical consultant and now as the principal of her own company who continues to collaborate with customers on a regular basis.

"Even if you never want to be a manager or supervisor, good communications skills have always been important. It’s not a new thing," Metrick says. "If you’re working support or speaking with internal groups in order to create software or manage what they have, you’re going to be dealing with people. You have to be able to communicate with them. If you’re working as part of a remote team or want to do so, great communications skills are critical."

As Metrick notes, there are plenty of scenarios where communication skills—a specific subset of the popular term soft skills, usually referring to any number of traits and skills that would typically fall outside of the core technical requirements of a particular IT role—are a must-have. That fact is unlikely to change, particularly as more IT departments evolve to become strategic hubs in their organizations instead of back-office functions. Communication skills are increasingly important even within IT itself: They’re a sought-after attribute on DevOps teams, for instance, and are commonly recommended as important for career advancement (even if you don’t aspire to become the boss.)

Which brings us to an important question: How do you develop communication skills if they don’t come naturally to you? What if you’re simply more comfortable on the command line than in conversation? Fortunately, communication is a buildable skill that’s not all that different in principle from learning a new developer tool or programming language.

Core lessons: Overall strategies for better communication

As Metrick noted above, improving takes some work, but it’s almost certainly worth it. Let’s consider 7 suggestions for building communication skills and becoming more comfortable with interpersonal interactions. This process is all about practice, without worrying about perfection.

1. Remember that communication is not just about talking.

Some of the conventional advice about building so-called soft skills makes it sound like today’s sysadmins and other IT pros must also become expert public speakers, business strategists, accountants, and the kinds of leaders that would make a military officer proud. Sure, if your long-game plan is to earn an executive position, you’ll need more than a passing sense of business acumen; ditto, the ability to speak in a room full of people and perform other non-technical abilities. Again, though, sharp communication skills are for everyone—not just those with eyes on the C-suite.

It’s more helpful—especially if conversation and other forms of speaking don’t come naturally to you—to remember that communication is about more than just talking.

Stephanie Thoma, a networking coach who specializes in working with introverts, recommends rebooting the typical idea of what it means to be "social." Being social is not just about the gift of gab. Listening—a skill super-talkative folks sometimes seem to lack—is just as important.

"Get to know your strengths. Maybe you’re a great listener, naturally curious, and can ask lots of open-ended questions. Perhaps you’re a keen observer and have a fly-on-the-wall view of your workplace culture and get along with mostly everyone," Thoma says. "Sometimes, when we feel self-conscious, we naturally keep to ourselves. It’s all about us. Try reframing what it means to be social. You’re primed to address the fundamental human needs of helping others feel heard and understood."

2. Learn (and plan) to ask good questions.

This goal isn’t like being a stand-up comedian; you don’t need 10 minutes of polished material (or more) in advance. If you’re looking to bump up your comfort level with workplace conversations and your overall conversation skills—and to make listening a fundamental aspect of your communication style—then start with a smaller unit: questions.

"If making conversation doesn’t come easily to you, ask open questions to encourage the other party to do most of the talking. Have a selection of questions ready in advance that require more than just a yes or no answer," says Paden Simmons, senior vice president at the recruiting firm Nigel Frank International. "Whether it’s asking someone about what projects they’re working on, what they got up to [during] the weekend, or just bringing up a recent news event, have a few options ready so that you can make the first move. You don’t have to be the one doing the talking all of the time, and by asking questions, and listening you’re playing to your strengths while developing the confidence to hold court."

3. Uncomfortable in large crowds? Focus on one-on-one interactions.

Another pitfall of some advice about soft skills like communication and relationship-building is that it focuses heavily on larger-group settings like team meetings, conferences, meet-ups, and similar contexts. If that’s where you’re the least comfortable, though, then it’s probably not your best starting point. One-on-one communication is just as critical, if not more so. If that option is more comfortable for you, focus there. It’s all about finding strategies that work for you, says Peter Vogt, publisher at Introvert Insights, LLC. In fact, Vogt notes that the first step can be digital: Use email—which Vogt calls the introvert’s best friend—to reach out to someone you’d like to connect with in the workplace or in other professional contexts.

"Ask about getting together over coffee to talk about whatever it is you want to talk about," Vogt says. "And then you could use one of the introvert’s favorite communication strategies—talking with someone one on one, in a quiet place, versus yelling at a bunch of people (and they at you) at, say, a conference luncheon—to go ahead and not only build your communication skills, but also learn something in the process."

4. Focus on getting your message across—not on perfection.

Metrick offers some crucial wisdom for sysadmins who want to improve their ability to communicate with non-technical people: Focus on helping them understand your message or topic, not on being technically correct.

"If your users aren’t technical people and you use all the correct jargon and acronyms of your specialty, they’ll be confused, not impressed," Metrick says. "While there might be certain terms they’ll have to eventually learn, they don’t have to become experts—that’s what they have you for."

As a sysadmin, you sometimes essentially speak another language than, say, your coworkers in marketing, and that’s completely OK. You’ll need to work on helping them understand what they need to understand, in terms they can understand. (Over at The Enterprisers Project, we have a series of articles about how to explain popular tech topics in a way that wide audiences can understand, such as: How to explain APIs in plain English.)

"You have to learn to translate your expertise to them in a way that they can understand," Metrick says. "Do not 'dumb it down.' They’ll notice if you speak down to them. What this is about [is] you working hard to select words that are meaningful to both you and to them."

Speed round: Quick tips for regular communication practice

Let’s close with a few more suggestions from Metrick on actionable steps you can take to get more practice with written and verbal communication, and also to become incrementally more comfortable with team or group settings over time.

5. Write an article or blog post.

Writing skills are as important as speaking skills; writing on a topic you know something (or a lot) about is a good way to get practice.

"For your own employer or for any group you belong to, volunteer to write an article or blog post on a topic that is of mutual interest," Metrick says. "If you have a favorite hobby, see if you can write for a hobby blog or magazine."

6. Give a short talk on a topic you know well.

That advice transfers to speaking, too: If you know the subject matter, you’ll be more comfortable talking about it. (It’s OK to be nervous; even experienced presenters and speakers get butterflies.)

"Volunteer to give a short talk on something you’re knowledgeable about," Metrick says. "It could be a hobby or a work topic, but volunteer groups in your area probably have some need of speakers."

7. Offer to write a summary of a new technology.

Finally, here’s a great one for getting practice in "translating" technical topics for other audiences, as well as writing and presenting skills.

"If your group gets a new tool or technology, volunteer to write a brief summary of what it’s used for or its advantages. Make it a handout at your next group meeting," Metrick says. "Also, volunteer to present it and answer a few questions about what you’d learned about it. Make it clear [that] it’s a high-level and short presentation—set a time limit. If you think you can manage standing in front of them for five minutes, insist it be five minutes. If you think you did well, next time, volunteer for ten minutes and work your way up to longer presentations."

Topics:   Career  
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Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?"  More about me

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