When I talk to people about making the transition from technical work into a management role, one of the recurring questions is whether managers need to know a language. There are strong opinions on both side of the argument:

On one side, people say: “You must know a language if you are to understand the work of your staff and have the respect of developers!”

On the other side, people respond: “Knowing a language isn’t necessary. Managers need to understand the work and not pretend to have more technical depth than they really have.”

Of course, the participants in this discussion are talking about a computer language. But what about being an expert in spoken language?

We communicate every day—to our families and friends, co-workers, managers, and teams. Language allows us to go where we want to go, have what we need, and communicate our ideas and feelings to others. Like many daily activities, our use of language is below the radar of conscious examination.

And that can trip us up. Here are some language traps for managers to avoid:


Have you ever heard this conversation?

Fred: You always forget to take out your testing stubs when you turn code over to CM.

Megan: Sure— I forgot a couple of times and you’ll never let me live it down!

Jennifer: You never include enough information in your bug reports.

Tom: Yes I do. Just ask Chase—he was able to recreate that data purge problem right away.

Always and never should never be used; they will always land you in trouble.

Well, I wouldn’t go that far. These words have their place. But be careful of how you use them, especially when you are hoping to influence future behavior. Always and never tend to focus the mind on finding a counter example. Absolutes set up the dynamic we saw with Fred and Megan and Jennifer and Tom.

Missing Details

Have you ever seen something like this happen?

Krista: You need to do better with your defect reports.

Dave: Okay.

Dave goes off and designs a new automated form that captures the memory state at the time of the error. Two weeks later he proudly shows Krista his work.

Krista: That’s not what I meant! I wanted you to describe the clicks that lead up to the error so the developers could recreate it!

Krista might have gotten what she’d wanted if she had filled in the details of the request. (If you are on Dave’s side of such a vague request, don’t guess, ask for clarification!)

Missing Comparisons

Product manager: We need to get this product out the door faster!

Compared to what? Without a comparison, we tend to fill in the blank with our own definition (which is most likely different from the next guy’s definition). Does faster mean one week faster? A day faster? Faster than our competitor? Faster than the speed of light?

We will do much better at meeting improvement goals when we are explicit and specific:

“The goal for 2.0 release of WidgetWonder is to improve mean-time-to-failure by 10%.”

“The Rec_retrieve function needs to complete in 1 second or less.”

“Our goal is to improve our turn-around time on customer identified critical errors by 25% on average.”

Black and White and Gray

Managers need to recognize when they are talking about a continuum (as with the concept fast) or a mutually exclusive category. We have a natural tendency to categorize. And our professional experience may condition us to look for binary conditions: A test passes or fails. A task is done or not. The release criteria has been met or it has not been met. Being clear about discrete conditions can be useful.

But not everything belongs in a mutually exclusive category, especially characteristics and qualities that pertain to people.

Consider this exchange:

Eric: I’m thinking about moving Cyndi into a management position.

Chris: I don’t know about that…I don’t think she could handle management. Cyndi isn’t assertive.

Assertiveness is not a category, it’s a continuum. One end may be doormat and the other end domineering. People can be at any point on that range, and their placement on the range isn’t fixed. In some situations, when Cyndi knows the subject matter and is feeling good about herself, she can be appropriately assertive. On another day, when everything has gone wrong at home, she’s out of her comfort zone, and is dealing with a situation she’s never faced, she may be less assertive.

Before you put someone in a box, check to see if the variable you are describing is continuous or discrete. Look at how the quality plays in different situations and over time.

It may help to know something about Java or C++…But it’s essential to be competent in the use of daily language (whatever your native language) when you are making the transition to management. Communicating clearly and unambiguously with your team will improve relationships, morale, and results.

An earlier version of this column appeared in STQE magazine, May/June 2002

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