If you’re a leader in tech, “non-technical” is not a free pass

Posted on Sun 21 April 2019 in blog • 3 min read

The excellent Josh Simmons recently implored people on Twitter1 to stop using the term “non-technical” when talking about another person’s skill set. And as far as that term is often used as a put-down of others, I am completely with Josh. Belittling someone because they work in documentation, corporate leadership, marketing, middle management, PR, advocacy, legal (etc. etc.), and because you consider yourself somehow superior because you’re in a “technical” role — that has got to stop, yesterday.

However, I would like to amend his plea to also decry the use of the phrase about oneself, as a cop-out. I am talking about people in leadership roles saying “I’m not technical” or “I’m not a tech person” to allege that they have bigger fish to fry, and cannot be reasonably expected to understand technical detail.

And that has to stop yesterday, too.

Leadership roles exist that require understanding of technical detail. If you’re the CEO of a tech company, you need to understand the technology your company makes. If you’re in charge of a product, you need to understand the technology that makes up that product. And even if your company’s core business has nothing to do with technology, but you are in charge of something that does, you need to understand that technology.

Now of course it’s nigh impossible to understand every bit of technology that you need to make decisions on, in its every intricate detail. But you will be faced with decisions that do boil down to specific technology details. And then, it is incumbent on you to know as much as you need to know, to make an informed decision. This is a core element of a leadership position, and it makes up at least part of your income differential versus a person who is a subject matter expert in their field, but doesn’t manage other people.

Whenever you have an issue to decide on that you don’t understand, get someone to explain it to you. It’s perfectly fine to say “I know nothing about this bit of technology, please give me your simplest explanation that will enable me to make a decision.” But you don’t get to say “I’m not a technical person” and use that as a pass for, and perpetuation of, your self-inflicted ignorance.

(By the way, the same is obviously true in reverse. Say you’ve got the tech-person perspective and someone from legal comes up to you with a question on licensing or patents or international contract law that you know zilch about? Same thing. “Please give me your simplest explanation of this matter that will enable me to make a decision.”)

There is a recently popular spin on the “it’s OK to be non-technical” cop-out argument, which is to over-emphasize communication skills over tech skills. It starts with a truism — a person’s technical skills provide little benefit unless paired with communications proficiency. But then this is frequently flipped to claim that technical understanding can be replaced with communications skills, because the former allegedly pales in importance versus the latter.

Let me break something to you: except in the rare case of a job where someone works entirely on their own and also has no customers,2 communication skills are every person’s most important skills. Yes of course your communication skills are more important than your tech skills, because they’re literally more important than anything.

However, if you’re a great communicator but you don’t know what you’re talking about, all that makes you is a bullshit peddler. And, if you’re actually incapable of listening to experts who are able and usually very willing to explain a complex matter to you, maybe you’re not such a grand communicator after all, either.

So if you’re in a leadership position that is even remotely tech-related, and you’ve ever used “I’m not technical” as a free pass to not understand things, stop. It isn’t.

  1. The post has since been deleted off Twitter (as have mine, incidentally), and Josh has reposted it to Mastodon

  2. Yes I am aware that this is exceedingly rare.