Is our developer being passive-aggressive?

A client posed this very question to me over lunch as she described the difficulties she's had working with another technology vendor who was building a database for her small non-profit. "It's been so frustrating," she lamented. "I ask them to make a change to the database, and they'll make the change, but it has a negative impact in several other ways I didn't anticipate. When I complain, they say—" 

I couldn't resist finishing her sentence, having heard the answer more times than I care to recall: "We did exactly what you asked."

We both laughed at the sad irony of this age-old interaction between the Technology Person and the client (who is usually what I'll call a People Person). I assured her that no, it was probably not passive-aggression, though it certainly can come off that way at times. The fundamental problem is the communication gulf between the way Technology People and People People think about information and access to it.

The Technology Person and the People Person

The Technology Person works intimately with computers and data all the time, and fully understands and feels at ease with the clean, logical way computers expect information to be organized in order to be effective.

The People Person works primarily with people and thinks in terms of their needs and goals. Sometimes people's needs are messy and inconsistent in a way that does not perfectly lend itself to the Technology Person's neat and organized way of thinking. So the Technology Person gets frustrated, and the path of least resistance is to respond to the People Person's "messy" requests in one of two ways.

  1. "That's too hard." This may be followed by a cryptic, vague, and/or daunting technological explanation that the People Person can't understand, such as "That query will drain server resources and slow performance." Typically, no alternatives are presented, leaving the People Person stranded with no way to accomplish their goal.
  2. "OK, you asked for it." The Technology Person then blindly performs the request without thinking through the big picture ramifications, as in my client's case, and likely introduces new problems.

So what's to be done?

The solution, I realized in talking to my client, is to find what I'll call a Bridge Person. The Bridge Person understands both people and technology, easily communicates with both Technology People and People People, and can serve as a "translator" between them where needed. As you have probably discovered, the Bridge Person is almost as rare and elusive a species as the West Indian manatee or the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The Bridge Person is who you want as a project manager. If you don't have any Bridge People on your staff, make sure the technology vendor has a Bridge Person on theirs. (We're happy to say we do, so if you happen to be looking for help with your website, do get in touch).

But how do we know if we're dealing with a bona fide Bridge Person?

  1. Make sure they have proven experience working with the technology you're using.
  2. Ask them about a technology solution they provided for another client. They should be able to clearly communicate to you the need the client had, and how the technology solved it, in a way that you (the People Person) completely understand. If you don't understand, don't sit quietly thinking "Oh, I really should understand, so I'll just pretend I do." Ask questions, even if they sound dumb to you (they aren't) and see if the person can make it completely comprehensible to you. If not, run! (OK, don't actually get up and bolt out the door, as that would be unprofessional, but you should reconsider working with this person. It probably won't go well.)
  3. Assuming Step 2 checks out, then talk to some of their other clients, and ask specifically about the person's communication style and how easy or difficult they are to work with.

The exciting secret

The Bridge Person brings a huge benefit to both Technology People and People People. The first group is helped because, with a Bridge Person's guidance, they build technology that's actually going to get used and enjoyed, because it responds meaningfully to organizations' needs. The People People? Well, it turns out that mapping messy human systems to clean, logical technology can force people to rethink those systems. When the mapping's done right, the systems that result are the best of both worlds.

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