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Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt

Speaking Tech to Non-Tech Types – a People-Skill Pitch

Speaking Tech to Non-Tech Types a Soft  People-Skill Pitch

Is Originality Over-Rated?

When Craig Cmehil invited me to have a speaking slot at SAP TechEd 2018 Las Vegas in the Community Space, my first thoughts were: “There’s more than a decade’s worth of wisdom and content accumulated in the community of SAP practitioners, influencers, developers inside and outside of SAP. What insights can I highlight that might be remotely helpful, or unique or original and haven’t already been posted or shared around communication, bridging community, soft skills (people skills) ?

The answer, it would seem is: “very little”.

I took a look at some of the most recent postings (and some older ones too!)

Soft Skills or Human Skills?

Oxford Dictionary defines soft skills as, “Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”

Back in 2014 and at the behest of Graham Robinson,  I participated in a panel session in Mastering SAP in Melbourne Australia with Matt Harding Brian O’Neill Jocelyn Dart and Jelena Perfiljeva the topic: “Is Inclusion a Competitive Business Advantage”

We also had a breakout discussion on upskilling and upscaling skills.

What stuck most in my mind about soft skills lay embedded in Jelena’s session:  IT and Business: The Tough Love Story .  She called those skills: “People skills for “I’m not a people person” people.

(cue laughter and a lot of violently shaking heads in the mostly developer audience)

She gave some guidance to addressing “hostile user syndrome” and accepting that business users “are also human”.

She offered sage advice:

  • Acknowledge
  • Communicate
  • Empathize
  • Share Knowledge
  • Save your sanity…bring the horse to water and leave it there

So what to talk about or explore at SAP TechEd Las Vegas?

Thanks to my life partner (he’s a recovering Rocket Scientist and algorithmic FX trader) I just attended an airshow in NY state last week.  Watching the precision of the pilots made me acutely aware of communication and the deleterious effects of failure to communicate especially in the sophisticated world of technology and aircraft.  It was also a remarkable display of teamwork.

I thought about a quote I had heard from Malcolm Gladwell:

“The kind of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication” –

Avoid “Crashes”

How? by the use of some of these people-oriented techniques

  • Common Ground
  • Resonance
  • Adaptive Agility
  • Story-Telling
  • Humility
  • Empathy
  • Simplicity

I’d love to explore these with you further, here and at SAP TechEd Las Vegas.

Looking forward to the opportunity to learn and engage.

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      Author's profile photo Simon Kemp
      Simon Kemp

      Looking forward to seeing you there Marilyn Pratt 🙂

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Simon Kemp .  Just listened to your Podcast with Jakob Marius Kjær speaking mindsets around diversity, inclusion, emotional intelligence, civility with Jamie Cantrell  and Jason Cao .  Love the commitment you have to create these coffee corner sound bites

      Both technical and "human" skills covered with interesting guests and good content.  Nice job!


      Author's profile photo Michelle Crapo
      Michelle Crapo

      Well now I’m depressed that I’m not going.  What do you bring to people skills?  What don’t you bring.  You are the ultimate at people skills.

      So – so many blogs on people skills.   It simply means we haven’t gotten it right yet.  Truly I think I never will get it right.  However, I strive daily to try to remember  not to be thinking of an answer when someone else is talking.    That one is my BIG one to focus on this year.

      People skills are a must.  We don’t hide in a hole programming without talking with people.  As we were doing our “upgrade” move to the new Netweaver 7.5 / HANA platform I forgot that.  Grumble, grumble, grumble…  The specs were just so detailed.   I forgot to really speak to the end user.  Big mistake.

      Non-technical speak - well I am reminded not to do that.  Either by the lack of response, or a good question.  "No question is a bad question".

      I enjoyed you blog – we all miss you!


      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      Always so self-reflecting Michelle Crapo

      And such great points about “not thinking of an answer when someone else is talking” and “really speaking to the “end user”."

      Recognizing the need is half the way to redressing.  Still get a giggle when thinking of Jelena Perfiljeva  saying a few years back (somewhat tongue-in-cheek).  “If I wanted to talk with people, I wouldn’t have become a programmer”.  I imagine we have gotten it closer to right when we declare “we don’t hide in a hole programming without talking with people”, despite our comfort spaces.

      Author's profile photo Jamie Langskov
      Jamie Langskov

      Unfortunately, I've heard a lot of "the user doesn't know what they need, only what they think they want" in discussions with developers over the years. This may be true in part, but we can't develop in a void and then be surprised when what we create doesn't address the fundamental needs of our users.  In any case, I hope your session went well and the show was great for everyone - I'm sad I missed it!

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao

      Hi Marilyn! Seeing you again will be a huge highlight of SAP TechEd for me this year. 🙂 I hope I can inch myself close enough towards the Community Showcase area to hear your session. I'll be in the Community Lounge and expect you to come by for an updated headshot by our professional photographer (yes, headshots are back!)

      By the way, I will be holding a meet-up on Wednesday on the same soft people-skills topic, and would be honoured if you can join and share your perspective on the topic. It would also give attendees a chance to meet you as well.

      Thank you for taking the time to join TechEd. Can't wait to see you!


      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      Hey Jason Cao - thanks for popping by.

      A little head's up on the Agenda Builder on the TechEd site.  I tried valiantly to add your sessions(s) but the session types of Meet-Ups and Lightening-Talks don't seem to allow adding to my agenda even when properly logged on.  Guess I'll need to "manually" copy those into my calendar or print them out in order not to miss those or have a schedule conflict during the times posted. Wonder if that glitch can be addressed or if you have a "work around" fix.

      Good job on crowd-sourcing people skills that "resonate" with others found in your thread: What soft-skills are important for your career?

      And then translating that into a graphic in: Top 5 Soft Skills That Get My Attention

      Intellectual curiosity and learning passion, listening, and openness made their way into your word cloud.  As did humility. Really cool.

      Also enjoyed reading about  ECCAT    (Acronyms help me remember 😉 )  Empathy, Communication, Curiosity, Accountability and Time Management.

      You've given me so many more ideas to noodle on in the coming days. Let's continue to mindshare.

      See you soon....

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao

      Thanks for letting me know about not being able to add Meet-Ups and Lightning Talks to the Agenda. I just sent an enquiry to the SAP TechEd events team to see if this was intentional or if there's an issue. Thank you for adding these manually to your calendar.

      More importantly, I was able to add your session to my agenda, and look forward to hearing more about CRASHES. 🙂


      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao

      Hi Marilyn Pratt, good news! I've just been informed the Agenda Builder issue is fixed, so Lightning Talks and Meetups can be added to agendas now. Thanks for letting me know.

      Author's profile photo Colleen Hebbert
      Colleen Hebbert

      Hi Marilyn Pratt


      I really hope this session is recorded for virtual participation


      Your visit to Airshow reminds me of my hubby convincing me to head to the Melbourne one a few years back. It was amazing seeing the ariel shows and the collobaration and skill to fly those planes

      Slightly off topic for your blog but it also made me think about failure to communicate and translation was the reminder we received at university - "Metric mishap caused loss of NASA orbiter"

      "NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency's team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation, according to a review finding released Thursday. "


      Common ground and communication is important. Seeking clarity as opposed to making assumptions ensures technical can communicate effectively with non-technical and deliver as expected.


      When it comes to chatting with non-techies, I like to tell them that "I translate nerd". It can be fun when you are finding common ground through an analogy to suit their context. The more you try to find the right approach, the better your solution comes as you start thinking about it from different view points.


      have a great SAP TechEd!

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      Wow, Colleen Hebbert  The NASA story is not at ALL off topic IMHO.  Ironically was just speaking to my better half about fail analysis in the context of repercussion-free “failfare” type of learnings so necessary to prevent future fails.  Full disclosure: My partner worked in JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) which is mentioned in your NASA link, although a number of years before the mishap.  He inspires and informs a good deal of my thinking around “lost in translation” communication and we have lively discussions around collaboration as he translates nerd really well for me.

      He also taught me (yesterday) about the importance of ICD documents in aerospace. Which communicate size, format, and what is measured by data. Yep, finding a handshake in language and common understanding.

      With your kind permission would love to weave this story into the CRASHES “Common Ground” theme.  Thanks so much for the inspiration!

      Author's profile photo Colleen Hebbert
      Colleen Hebbert

      permission granted (goes without saying!)


      Really sounds like this is going to be an interesting discussion.


      Documentation is hated by many technical people. Quite a few debates in community regarding how much code commenting is required, etc.


      This some university subject required us to work in teams and agree on terms including which software we would use, etc (Microsoft Word versus something else). Amazing how we can take our ways of working for granted.


      Author's profile photo Nigel James
      Nigel James

      Great blog Marilyn,

      I used to call them soft-skill too but I got convinced that this name is unhelpful. Soft means weaker or not as important or even worse the opposite of 'hard' .

      For this reason I prefer 'people' or 'communication' skills as this puts the focus on what the skills are. And to be honest we can all upgrade our people and communication skills.

      Sorry that I wont see you at TechEd this year.


      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      Hey Nigel James , I'm even more sorry we won't speak in person as you have, since inception here, been quite the inspiration around powerful humanizing communication in the Tech Community.  You model putting people first.  And BTW loved your ability to "poke the bears" in your blog and subsequent podcast .  It's a really good skill to create lively discussion - sometimes the very opposite of consensus.....

      Which reminds me: I remember reading (Kathy Sierra back in 2005, thanks to Mark Finnern ) who illustrated that you can have a lot of "smart people" with a "less than smart" consensus. 

      Somehow that links to your "we can all upgrade our people and communication skills".  And thus another theme to noodle on..... how our diverse inputs and skills can upgrade the whole in all the different ways we understand human communication. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Author's profile photo Matthew Billingham
      Matthew Billingham

      The point about people skills is that they’re a learnable skill.

      I’m not by inclination or nature particularly sociable or a people-person. However, as an actor in my spare time, I can say that if you can act as though you’ve got people skills, that’s as effective as having them.

      As various people are credited with saying – if you can fake sincerity, you can fake anything. ?


      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      Hey Matthew Billingham .  Didn’t know you were a thespian. Fun fact.  Who says smart technical folks can’t be stage players? I’ve had a little theater training myself (he-he).

      Seriously, was recently reading how improv skills can be very useful and effective in honing technical communication skills. Here are 3 things they claim to enhance (or force): collaboration, letting go of judgement, becoming a better listener.

      Play on!

      Author's profile photo Matthew Billingham
      Matthew Billingham

      It depends on exactly the nature of the improvisation. If you're improvising a scene for example, then you can't do it without those three things. In that sense improv will hone those skills.

      On the other hand, if you're on stage dealing with a heckler (shutting them up quickly) or interacting with the audience (who are usually on your side), you need confidence, the willing to take risks and to be able to think fast on your feet. And never losing focus.

      Author's profile photo Nigel James
      Nigel James

      Is this a five minute argument or the full half hour?

      Author's profile photo Matthew Billingham
      Matthew Billingham

      It was a full five minute agreement, with an expansion on the nature of improvisation in a theatrical environment.

      Author's profile photo Jelena Perfiljeva
      Jelena Perfiljeva

      Totally stoked about an opportunity to see you at TechEd again and thanks for the shout-out and a credit to my humble presentation!

      Just like Nigel James , I don't understand why these are called "soft" skills. They are hard! 🙂

      I hope that your session will also be attended by the SAP Community team. Some of them could use a refresher course on empathy IMHO.

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      You’ve never been shy of speaking your “hard” truth Jelena Perfiljeva .  Let’s find the time to catch-up.

      Safe travels.


      Author's profile photo Volker Barth
      Volker Barth

      Some of them could use a refresher course on empathy IMHO.

      Oops, that was not a soft hit, either:)

      Author's profile photo Matt Fraser
      Matt Fraser

      Marilyn, I'm so sorry that I wasn't there in LV last week to see you! Coming to BCN by any chance? Hint, hint... 😉

      As always, you are right on the mark, and that's why I always enjoy reading your posts. A few weeks ago I found myself looking over your "back catalog," and I was amazed at the diversity and profundity of titles in your repertoire. And now you have introduced me to a whole host of new blogs and authors to go read... time to get busy!

      When I am in Barcelona in a few weeks, I will be alongside Christian Braukmüller for a session about best practices while interacting in the community, and as always, my personal guiding light will be the mantra, What Would Marilyn Do? One can never go wrong keeping this in mind.

      Thank you for listing my humble little Zen post alongside such luminaries.


      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author

      I hope someone will record your best practices session.  You and Christian Braukmüller are wonderful role models of quality engagement.  Enjoy Barcelona!  I had a wonderful time in LV.