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How to Talk to a Programmer

Just about anybody that works in medium-to-large size company has probably experienced the dreaded IT/Help Desk guy. You know the one I mean – the poorly-dressed, over-confident, slightly smelly guy who knows how to get your deleted email back or maybe get rid of those annoying pop-up windows. Well, if you think that guy is bad, you’ve clearly never had to deal with a programmer…

Before we begin, let me make something clear: this post will be full of stereotypes and generalizations. Not every programmer you encounter will be this way or require the sort of interaction I’m going to describe – but many, many of them will. So I don’t want to get a huge backlash from the “normal” programmers out there, because they know that I’m at least somewhat right about this. Mmkay? Mmkay. Now, a hypothetical situation for you:

You’re hard at work pumping out today’s TPS report when suddenly the TPS report generator (developed in-house by Fred) throws up a horribly cryptic error. You do your best to decipher it, but you’re just not quite sure what an “Unhandled Exception” is or what to do about it. At this point, you have an important decision to make: You can either try to figure out the problem yourself (assuming it’s a situation where such a thing is possible), or you can go find Fred in the next room. What do you do?

Let me make this easy: Always try to solve the problem yourself first. Because I promise you, Fred is going to ask you what you tried to do to fix it when you walk over to visit him (and your answer will directly affect the degree to which he helps you). If all you can say is “Fred, the TPS report generator is broken”, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.

Now let’s assume that the breakage is something that’s impossible for the end user to diagnose (for example, the application errors out before it even completely starts), or that you’ve done your best to try to resolve the issue yourself. Obviously, you’re going to need to involve Fred. Your success in dealing with Fred quite literally depends on your understanding of 3 truths (incidentally, these are true when dealing with just about anybody, not just the quirky types):

  • Don’t Demand Anything – Unless Fred reports directly to you, you’re not going to get anywhere if you crash into his Star-Wars-laden cubicle with guns drawn. The second you start getting pushy with old Fred, the second he’ll “suddenly realize” that your problem is going to take 2-3 days to resolve. So, in short, be nice to Fred and let him steer the conversation. After all, he knows how the system works and you need his help – if anything, bring an extra Mountain Dew along with you to help grease the wheels.
  • Don’t Expect to be Coddled – Fred probably isn’t going to hold your hand. He’ll either fix the problem for you or give you some possible fixes that you should try out first. If he goes for the latter, your best bet here is to write it down. There’s nothing that will annoy him more than you coming back 2 minutes later asking “What was I supposed to click again?”. If it’s a multi-step solution, jotting it down will further ensure you execute it correct (and you’re likely to impress Fred in the process). If you can’t follow instructions, expect resolution of your problem to come much slower than if you had. That actually segues nicely into the final point
  • They Like it when You Listen – Fred isn’t a magician. In fact, a good programmer is one of the most logical, analytical people you’re likely to come across outside of NASA. So, while many of the details of his work may be Greek to you, his solution (and likely his explanation) are probably pretty logical.

    Now, this doesn’t mean that you should sit by and let him talk over your head, because that will likely lead to a violation of truth #2 (you’ll be back in no time asking for clarification). If you don’t understand what something is/means, ask! Many (but not all) programmers love to talk about the elegance of their solutions (myself included, to be honest). A great way to gain rapport with guys like Fred is to ask him to explain a particular concept or idea that’s present in the TPS report generator. You’ll watch a smile emerge and he’ll excitedly describe it, probably using words like “polymorphism”. Again, try to grasp what he’s saying – and know that he’ll like you more because you asked.

In short, just understand that you’re probably dealing with a different type of person than most of your officemates. Programmers are a special breed of people and there could be whole communication courses taught on how to effectively interact with them. While programmers may not be the easiest people in the world to deal with, they can be very handy friends to have when something needs to get done quickly. We’re a terribly loyal lot and appreciate it when users help us help them.

Just do your best to make their job easier (the same courtesy you probably expect from anybody asking you for help) and you’re likely to get, and stay, in their good graces for years to come.

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