Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why improper terminology can be terminal.

I started this blog with the intention of sharing some of my experience as a Systems Administrator in Higher Education. I plan on it being mostly a rundown of technical solutions, experience with products that see a lot of play in education, the challenges of lab management vs corporate desktop management and all that fun stuff, but for the very first post, I'm going to tackle a universal topic that I see some people struggle with unnecessarily: terminology and communication.

On many occasions, our Systems Technicians will call me or send me an email to get some perspective on an issue that they can't solve themselves. Most of the time, I'm more than willing to lend them a hand if I have the time available, even though I'm not obligated to. If I can help to improve their knowledge, it will keep less crap from rolling uphill to me.

To me the most unpleasant part of helping entry-level technicians is their lack of technical vocabulary. As IT professionals, a big part of our job is deciphering what end-users actually mean when they say things like "the Internet is down" or "my computer won't log in." Many times they mean that a single website is unavailable, or that they can't log into a single application or external service, but their domain login is fine. This is part of the territory and any SA that has to occasionally deal with end-users quickly adapts to this and asks very basic questions to isolate and identify the root of the issue. What shouldn't be part of the territory is having to decipher what your technicians or helpdesk staff are trying to tell you.

Entry-level IT staff that use poor terminology has always bothered me, but I haven't really thought about why until recently and it really comes down to a few key points:
  • By taking the leap into an IT career, you are no longer an end-user. You can no longer think about problems like an end-user and you shouldn't describe problems like one.
  • Professionalism. I would be very concerned if I took my car to a garage and they said "your car is running rough because that thing that controls the stuff is all jacked up, but don't worry - we can fix it!" It comes off as amateur to hear a tech use similar vague terminology. If I ever hear a tech say "sometimes these things just happen," I make sure I explain to them that things "don't just happen" and hardware/software should not be treated like a black box.
  • I encourage techs that frequently ask me for help to seek out documentation on issues before contacting me. If you don't know how to properly describe a problem verbally using technical terminology, how can you ever search a knowledge base for an answer? Google will only get you so far. Ultimately, your goal in IT should be to be in a position where you are looked to for finding answers with no one above you for help. You should want to be king of the hill. Without the ability to describe situations in technical terms, you're severely limiting what information you can find for yourself which, in turn, limits your upward mobility.
I realize that entry level techs usually won't have the strongest technical vocabulary, but they should always be asking "what's the name for this" or "what is the mechanism or protocol that controls that." Knowing what things are called is an important part of being taken seriously in any profession. Being in IT magnifies this principle since there are an absolutely massive amount of protocols, acronyms, and terms that are used in everyday operation.

The bottom line is this: Don't be afraid to ask "What is this called?" or "How does this work?" You might think it makes you look bad, but what makes you look worse is when you call me and tell me that a domain controller is down, because you see "No logon server available" on a single workstation.


  1. Is it wrong that the first thing to pop into my head when I saw the "domain controller is down" part is "The website is down!"

  2. " If I ever hear a tech say "sometimes these things just happen," I make sure I explain to them that things "don't just happen" and hardware/software should not be treated like a black box."

    Things shouldn't be treated like a black box, except when they are. Sadly, many software and hardware solutions I've dealt with have no more clarity than a copy of Finnegan's Wake translated back and forth between Klingon and Traditional Chinese using BabelFish.

    Doubly sad is just how often that black box is a major operating system, like Windows Server. Too often my research into a symptom is stymied by the closed nature of the beast and I have to weigh billing a few thousand dollars in time to trace a quirk down or simply say "That's how it is" and write a script to restart a service once every night.

    I don't fault people out of hand for saying "Sometimes these things just happen." Sometimes, those things just happen. =)

  3. @bsilver - Haha, I can see the mental connection there.

    @Wes - In that sense you're certainly right, but what I'd rather hear an entry-level person say is "this is happening for a reason, I just don't know what it is." The closed-source nature of most of the apps that a Windows user uses on a daily basis will eventually lead to dead-ends in doing really in-depth root-cause analysis. So, I agree with what you said, but I'd argue that "I don't know why that happens" is a much more valid statement than "it just happens." But maybe that's just me being nitpicking. :)

  4. Mark: insightful thinking here. That has nagged at me for a long time, but I had never really put it into these words. I've often told people that "if you call things by their correct names, it improves your thinking" ... but that just gets shrugged off as "oh he is just being an analytical ass again."

    So I'm gonna try saying it your way. Thanks for this.

  5. But it does just happen - all too often I find myself falling back on saying that to other IT bods because of the pain involved with trying to get them to understand about memory problems or hardware failures.

    One of the things I wish we could teach every IT Professional out there is Computing Maths and System Design - two courses from University which mean I have at least a clue of what's happening inside the Microsoft Beast.

    I wonder if we can get an RFC for how server 2008 R2 operates :)

  6. @The writer - I'll hold my breath for that, you get the body bag ready for me :)

  7. No idea why I show as The writer....

    Body bag at the ready!