Putting That English Degree To Work - in Technology

by | April 01, 2009

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I'm one of those sick, sick people who actually gets a kick out of diagramming sentences and knowing when to use "who" and "whom." People generally react to this with emotions ranging from bemusement to annoyance - but ironically enough, it was my IT job where people first started treating it with respect.

Naturally, as a High School English teacher, a solid command of the language is a must. When I first assumed my alternate professional life as a computer consultant, I worried that my technological skills had slipped. Perhaps I now knew more about diction than disks, was more comfortable around the Bard than Baud. Sure, I could rattle off sonnets in my sleep, but how could I possibly compete with web-jockeys who ate cascading style sheets for breakfast and dreamed in XML?

Imagine my surprise when my bosses found my ability to speak English as valuable as my ability to script Perl. Suddenly my desk is piled high with requests to write documentation. Higher-ups suddenly start asking me to proofread their memos and project proposals. I spend time manning a help desk phone, only to get calls from in-house staff who need to know when to use semicolons.

But it gets better. Someone in the office found out I teach in my other life. Suddenly I'm the "teacher guy." In my very second week at my latest job, I was assigned to teach a course on a new supported software package to our clients. Oh, don't worry about the back-end, Dave. We'll tell you what you need to know, walk you through it. You just make it intelligible to the lay person.

I'm told that in the old days, the lay person didn't matter. In fact, years ago, there simply weren't that many lay people around. Computers were the toys of computer professionals and hobbyists. There was no need for the "for dummies" treatment. But the democratization of computers has put them on the desks of thousands of people who lack the "under the hood" knowledge to get the most out of their machines. Despite all attempts to gloss user-friendliness into them, computers stubbornly refuse to be appliances. They are complex machines, the works of which are best explained to the uninitiated through metaphor. ~Who better to instruct via metaphor than English teachers? You don't have to be a code-writing, device-driver shuffling guru. You just have to be someone who can learn enough of what the average user has to master, then explain it to that average user in plain talk. You need a good imagination - the difference between Megs of RAM memory and Megs of hard disk storage, for example, can be explained as storing something on a chalkboard and storing something in a file cabinet. The chalkboard has a limited surface area, and can be wiped clean easily. Items in a file cabinet enjoy more permanent storage, but can't be worked with until you open it and copy the contents to the blackboard so people can see it.

These are terms which a non-technology person can understand, terms in which die-hard tech heads don't always think of. The need for this translation is so great at the organization where I work that I can't even handle it on my own - I am now co-teaching a course to our team so they can document the software they write in plain English. The more new environments into which computers find their way, the more need for this gap to be bridged, and the more demand there is for "hybrids" who can do it. Keep this in mind if you ever worry that a Liberal Arts major and a Computer Science minor (or vice versa) makes you a freak of nature.

If you're fortunate enough to walk the line between techdom and reality, between writing code and writing essays, think twice before you deride yourself for lacking the knowledge of your sysadmin buddies. You just might be the ideal ambassador between them and the real world, and may even draw a higher paycheck for it. I know I do.

David Nurenberg is a former columnist for FamilyPC magazine, a certified high school English teacher, and an aspiring novelist. His own little corner of the web exists at http://www.strugglingwriter.com

Filed Under: Technology

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