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Building Technical Literacy in Business Teams

Companies that build tools, infrastructure, and other products used by engineers and developers are often dampened by business teams that…

Building Technical Literacy in Business Teams

Companies that build tools, infrastructure, and other products used by engineers and developers are often dampened by business teams that lack technical literacy in their market. Departments that build and maintain the core product often represent the vast majority of technical competency in a company. Marketing, sales, product management, business development and strategy teams often cannot even describe (much less navigate, intelligently discuss, market or sell) the technical assets of the company. This post is about what technical literacy means and concrete strategies for building it, based on my experiences working at various high tech companies, conversations with friends and colleagues, and formal schooling in technical programs. I believe this conversation is as relevant to tech PR firms as it is to software creators, and as important for entry-level marketing employees as executives.

Technical Literacy

Technical literacy is a spectrum of knowledge, language and critical thinking skills. It can act as a force multiplier on the efficacy of individual employees as well as entire business units.

Business teams high on this spectrum tend to exhibit competencies such as:

  • Team members can accurately describe the software’s architecture, interfaces, operations and benefits/limitations to developers and engineers
  • Team members can identify and describe technical differences between similar and competing technologies
  • Team members can identify and communicate implementation and usage trends in the customer base and market
  • Team members can install, run and demo the software on their laptops, in public cloud environments and on other infrastructure
  • Team members can use the software’s interfaces, interact with it using APIs, client libraries and the command line, and/or build small-scale,limited applications using the tools/software
  • Team members have read, understood and can discuss and contribute to the product documentation
  • Team members have read, understood and can discuss academic literature relevant to the design and theory of the software
  • Team members know how to find quickly find answers to technical questions posed by users of the software or quickly activate a resolution path to issues

Benefits and Liabilities

For many products, none of the above skills require an engineering degree or programming background and can be both taught and cultivated. Teams which lack these skills subject the company to liabilities which include marketing inaccurate and misleading information and developing deep distrust between engineering and business teams. In contrast, teams which possess these skills will do the following:

  • Identify and execute on partnerships with the most technical value to users
  • Win technical sales deals at a higher rate and with a shorter sales cycle
  • Serve as a community evangelism arm for the company
  • Create accurate, highly relevant content that directly contributes to engineers and developers selecting and being successful with the software
  • Help shape product direction by filtering relevant user research, feedback and market data to the engineering team
  • Identify and harness key technical forces shaping the company, products and market

Strategies for Building Technically Literate Business Teams

Building and expanding technical knowledge within business teams requires a cultural commitment. Too many companies are negligent and fatalistic when it comes to the technical competency of their business team, building internal ghettos of ignorance and creating unintelligible barriers between products and external users. Here are actionable strategies to nurture a company culture that creates and grows technical literacy.

Forbid use of phrases like “Well I’m not that technical but…” or “I’m not an engineer, but…”

We use these phases to absolve ourselves of responsibility for gaining technical literacy and excuse those who lack it from learning. Make a culture where excuses aren’t a valid response to questions and dialogue, or a reason to avoid learning opportunities.

Create radical transparency and access to technical units.

Invite business teams to sit in on engineering meetings. Have internal technical chat rooms where non-developers are welcome to be present, participate and ask questions. Share engineering status updates with the entire company. Hold technical training on new releases which are accessible to all groups. Increasing communication between technical and business teams tends to increase the shared knowledge of the company, produce better collaboration, and lead to better processes for interaction. End silos and share knowledge.

Do not shame learners.

Inside companies, technical ability is a classification used to distribute wealth, create in/out groups, and prevent minorities and underrepresented populations from being valued and included. Create a culture where making fun of someone for asking beginner questions isn’t acceptable, where “she’s not that technical” isn’t a way to devalue someone, and where everyone feels responsible for educating each other.

Create an immersive technical environment.

Provide an immersive experience where it is possible for business teams to pick up on the language, concepts, designs, tools and structure of the technical team. Growing technical literacy is very similar to new language acquisition. If technical discourse and education isn’t an omnipresent facet of the environment, business teams will stagnate and efforts to permanently elevate technical literacy across the company will fail. Share technical content on internal social networks. Discuss tech news on calls and in water cooler conversations.

Make technical training an integral part of new employee onboarding across ALL units.

Give new employees assigned/recommended technical reading and access to videos, documentation and training. Discuss the material and provide employees with a forum to ask questions. Hold 1x1 sessions with new employees and engineers, developers and other members of the technical staff.

Provide access to educational materials for a core set of technical abilities.

First, have an opinion of what skills are most relevant to your business. In general, the following skills can be gained in 3-6 months and significantly increase technical literacy and access to many products: build simple HTML/CSS pages, query RESTful public APIs, master common commands on a CLI, spin up instances on EC2, commit code to Github, set up SQLite, build a simple MVC application. Provide access to resources like PeepCode, ebooks, tutorials and other material to help employees self-learn these foundational skill sets.

Create a continuing education curriculum.

For all fields, all workers, and all lines of work, knowledge is a spectrum. You must strive to define and achieve a base level of technical literacy across your entire company, but also to continually elevate that literacy. Effective strategies can include sending business teams to technical events and industry conferences, holding learning sessions on new topics on a regular basis, regularly distributing new research and material to the team, and having hands-on technical workshops to learn new features and aspects of the product. Less important than the exact facets of the plan is that there is an overarching strategy that continually pushes the business team forward in relevant fields of understanding.

And most importantly: set different expectations.

Business teams don’t lack some inherent skill to gain technical ability. They didn’t miss some critical knowledge acquisition period that has now passed. They aren’t actively resisting knowing more about the products and technologies around them. The system that says marketers, sales people, business development and product workers can’t or shouldn’t be technical and therefore have less value is an industry-wide myth that serves to maintain the status quo. It is a mechanism used to oppress women, create wealth gaps, shame people from the “wrong” backgrounds, maintain white male geek elitism and prevent underrepresented groups from gaining options in technical fields.

There is an artificial barrier in the tech industry designed to separate the business people from the technical people. This is what you must tear down. The belief becomes an expectation. To change the belief you must change the expectations. Once the culture EXPECTS business teams to have technical literacy and VALUES that literacy, the behavior changes.