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Bet You Can’t Tell Me What This Is

June 18, 2014


I was once a pretty good interpreter for the deaf. I learned American Sign Language as part of a mission calling for the Mormon church. (The Day I Found Out I Was A Jerk.) By the end of two years of constant practice during literally every waking moment, I got fluent enough that I didn’t have an “accent.” In other words, I signed like a deaf person.

I had many opportunities to interpret. I interpreted for my missionary companions, I interpreted for people talking to government officials. I interpreted for the police, I even once interpreted a magic show for several hundred people. I’m not bragging (much) when I say I was really, really good. At the same time, I was terrible. Not through any lack of skill, but because the medium itself limited me.

Tell me what the picture is at the top of this column? You probably guessed violin. You might have guessed viola, but if you were aware enough to guess viola, you would have recognized the violin. The great performer Izak Perlman described the difference between a violin and a viola like this,

The viola takes lightly longer to burn.

Anyway, my point is that of course you recognize the violin. I would imagine you even know what one sounds like. Please, in the comments below describe what a violin sounds like so that I can interpret it for my friends who are deaf. And as an added bonus, please describe the difference between how a violin sounds and how a saxophone sounds.

If you can, you are a better writer than I. And yet, we each know what these instruments sound like. If I were to blindfold you and play one or the other you could instantly recognize the difference. If you really know what a violin sounds like, why can’t you tell me? Why can’t I translate it into sign language so that my deaf friends could understand it?

We suffer the same limitations in technical areas. Great programmers have an innate feel for their code. When they get into the zone the code tends to write itself. Those of you who are coders, how do you explain to a new developer what that feels like? How do you help them to get to that point?

This is also why it often feels like engineers or programmers are talking a different language. It’s not just the jargon that techies love to throw around. It’s an entire foundation of understanding.

As a project manager, I love analogies. My job often involves “interpreting” between tech-talk and biz-speak. Using an analogy helps me bridge that gap. Explaining the internet addressing scheme ( would take me hundreds of words. But, if I tell you that it’s like a street address, every house having a unique number, then you can grasp enough to have the discussion.

I love to quote Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired-Boss (PHB) and claim,

Anything that I don’t understand must be simple.

It’s not always the case, of course, and the engineers I’m talking to understand that I’m using humor to acknowledge that I don’t have a clue what they are saying. But, in another sense, it very much is true. Internet addressing, also called IPv4 IS a simple concept to network engineers. It’s so basic to what they do that if you don’t understand it, there isn’t enough common ground to even have a discussion.

The opportunity to bridge that communication gap is why I loved being a corporate trainer, and it’s why I enjoy being an IT project manager. I get to talk to both techy and business sides and I get to interpret from one to the other.

So, the next time one of your engineers offers you an explanation that sounds like a dictionary that was chewed up by a blender, just ask her what a violin sounds like.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

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