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The curse of common knowledge: communicating for clarity and inclusivity


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Once we’ve learned something, we often forget what it was like to not know, and how hard it was to learn. This “curse of knowledge” can impact the way we interact with our colleagues and our mentees. For our colleagues we consider “technical,” if their experience doesn’t overlap with us, there are often things that we find second nature that they have never experienced. This can lead to frustration, miscommunication, and sometimes equating competence with knowing potentially obscure definitions.

Using “magical language” can harm our communication with teams who don’t write code or live in the same day-to-day environment that we do, leading to frustration and lost time. In addition, making assumptions about definitions and prior knowledge of everyone we interact with marginalizes those from underrepresented groups, because they’re more likely to have come through a “non-traditional” path, and have different expertise and gaps in their knowledge than what one might expect.

I’ll talk through “magic” things about code and programming that we often forget, and how it impacts those we interact with: whether it’s the colleagues on our team, partners in other organizations, or interns and mentees. I’ll present real-life stories from my own experience, and strategies I’ve used in the past to ensure that everyone is on the same page. I’ll also make fun of myself, and present ways that I’ve used to ask questions that intimidate me - questions I think I really should know the answer to.

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The curse of common knowledge: communicating for clarity and inclusivity

  1. 1. The curse of "common knowledge": communicating for clarity and inclusivity Yulan Lin @y3l2n (twitter) DevOpsDaysBoston September 2017
  2. 2. I am a... ● Data Scientist ● Software Engineer ● Event Operations ● Meetup Organizer ● Writer ● Musician Oh hello there! @y3l2n
  3. 3. Motivation for the talk: Which is harder? @y3l2nImage credits: wocintechchat Heads-down problem solving, technical solutions Working with people (coworkers, clients, management) OR
  4. 4. Twofold motivation for this talk Onboarding new team members @y3l2n Working with (colleagues) and serving (customers) people unlike us Image credits: wocintechchat
  5. 5. Roadmap of the talk 1. Curse of Knowledge: it’s hard to remember what it was like with less knowledge and context 2. Code Switching: jumping between contexts 3. Culture & Norms: understanding what shared context you have 4. Power Dynamics: people with power responsible for creating a shared context @y3l2nThe curse of common knowledge: communicating for clarity and inclusivity
  6. 6. The curse of knowledge: It’s really hard to remember what it was like before you knew something. @y3l2n1. The curse of knowledge
  7. 7. Problem: ● Hidden oral traditions ● Knowledge stored in muscle memory or in our “workflow” Solution: ● Have new folks update docs ● Have experienced folks fact-check 1. The curse of knowledge @y3l2n Onboarding folks: finding out our assumptions the hard way
  8. 8. Random things about your tech, systems, & processes ● What exists? ● What are the nuances? ● How do things talk to each other? ● “But it works locally!” @y3l2n1. The curse of knowledge
  9. 9. The “whys” of your technology + systems + processes Consider: ● Why are things configured a certain way? ● Why were certain technologies chosen? ● Why was something not done? Behind every decision was a human with a particular context. @y3l2n1. The curse of knowledge
  10. 10. @y3l2n1. The curse of knowledge Lack of trivia knowledge != lack of competence
  11. 11. Random facts about your organization ● Acronyms + terminology ● What processes exist ● When to go through those processes @y3l2n1. The curse of knowledge
  12. 12. The flip side of the curse of knowledge: ask questions! @y3l2n1. The curse of knowledge
  13. 13. Code Switching: From linguistics: a useful framework for switching contexts. @y3l2n vs.
  14. 14. Code switching: moving between contexts/framing 2. Code switching ● Different language communities (English/Chinese) ● Different cultural contexts (Asian/Asian-American/American) ● Different job settings (Nonprofits/Code) @y3l2n
  15. 15. Mapping out my professional contexts Bench research @y3l2n Music teaching Code Nonprofits 2. Code switching
  16. 16. What do words mean? @y3l2n “Presentation” ● Academic/technical presentation ● Presentation to management White paper ● Different than college papers ● Audience and purpose 2. Code switching Being context-aware helps us to be precise with our words!
  17. 17. Mapping out work interactions @y3l2n2. Code switching Developers Business units Sysadmins Clients
  18. 18. Code-switching at work @y3l2n Context switches & bridging the gap between people ● Ops & Devs ● “Technical” & Business ● “Technical” & Client ● Scientists & Devs ● Security & Devs
  19. 19. Organizational Culture and Norms: The stories that we tell about ourselves: the things we value, who we value, and who is welcome. @y3l2nImage credit: wocintechchat
  20. 20. Examples of narratives we tell at work Stories about ourselves ● Education/school background ● “We’re all rockstars” ● What we do as a team? Stories about others ● Are we understanding of other people’s context? @y3l2n3. Org Culture and Norms
  21. 21. @y3l2n3. Org Culture and Norms #unqualifiedfortech on Twitter
  22. 22. @y3l2n #unqualifiedfortech Twitters to follow: @brenbriggs, @mzbat, @rachelnabors, @Yhg1s, @unixgeekem
  23. 23. How do we choose to engage with each other? ● Assuming good intent ● How do we disagree? ● How we refer to each other ○ Names ○ Pronouns ● Not all jokes are funny or appropriate @y3l2n3. Org Culture and Norms
  24. 24. What is the culture around asking questions? ● Can we challenge authority/hierarchy? ● Questions != lack of knowledge @y3l2n3. Org Culture and Norms
  25. 25. How do I ask questions? @y3l2n3. Org Culture and Norms
  26. 26. How do we respond to questions? ● Everything from that comic, but from the other end ● Neutral language ● Excited to explain! ● Ask questions about context first ○ What did you try? ○ What are you comfortable with? ○ Why do you need to know? ● Communication is more than words @y3l2n3. Org Culture and Norms
  27. 27. Power Dynamics: The social context that we exist and operate within and the ways we can shape it. @y3l2n
  28. 28. Types of power ● Hierarchical power ● (Organizational) political power ● Social power (from external systems) 4. Power dynamics @y3l2n
  29. 29. How do power and privilege play out in the workplace? ● Who gets assigned certain projects? ● What assumptions are made about competence? ● Who is “cleaning up” & “notetaking”? ● What words do we use to interact? ● Who gets invited to happy hours? @y3l2n4. Power dynamics
  30. 30. Concrete examples of power & privilege ● The social cost of things is different for different groups ○ Asking questions ○ Having non-tech interests ○ Cost of not being “perfect” technically ● How people look @y3l2n4. Power dynamics
  31. 31. The cost of “admitting” what kind of background you have @alicegoldfuss 4. Power dynamics #unqualifiedfortech reprise
  32. 32. The “cost” of liking non-technical things @alicegoldfuss 4. Power dynamics
  33. 33. Leveraging power & privilege ● Ask questions others might be penalized for ● Create space for people to interact/ask questions different ways ● Encourage documentation ● Help with things you’re specifically asked to Power dynamics @y3l2n
  34. 34. Recap ● Curse of Knowledge: it’s hard to remember what it was like with less knowledge and context ● Code Switching: jumping between contexts ● Culture & Norms: understanding what shared context you have ● Power Dynamics: People with power responsible for creating a shared context @y3l2n
  35. 35. Final thoughts Things to remember ● Considering context ● Precision ● Ask questions if you can! Good communication is good for your business! @y3l2n
  36. 36. @y3l2n Acknowledgements + Questions + Keep in touch! I want to acknowledge: ● Awesome tech communities (online) ● Awesome tech communities (meatspace) Twitter: @y3l2n Website: