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Requests Are Actually Specs

Since the emergence of the web, the creative and technical realms have been joined as never before. Over my years of moving between these disciplines, I’ve noticed some interesting phenomena that create real friction points. Many times, they come down to culture clashes. Today, we’ll talk about a common one that manifests in a number of related ways. The engineer/non-engineer communication breakdown.

It goes something like this:

A marketing person calls a technical guy to get him to do something for him on the web. He’s seen some really clever stuff, and read an article or two, and he’s convinced that a new technology or practice is just the thing to do for his company. He tries to get the techie to tell him how they can do it and what it will take, but the tech guy wants to get bogged down in a lot of geeky-tweaky details. Marketing guy is frustrated that the tech guy is being so pedantic and dragging him into the minutia.

And from the other perspective:

A web developer gets a call from a marketing guy. The marketing guy unloads a lot of buzzwords and some interesting ideas, but precious few particulars. Developer is being asked what it will take to make it happen, so he begins to ask some clarifying questions to determine the project scope. The marketing guy is unable to answer some questions, and answers others in a way that requires more questions. Developer tries to systematically work through the particulars, based on a quick idea of what he thinks the marketing fellow wants, but the marketing guy just ends up leaving too many things unanswered.

Have you done this dance? It could just as easily happen in the middle or end of a project as well, when some changes or additions are requested.

The Engineering Mindset

There’s something important to understand about the developers who build this online world we all partake in. Whether hardware or software focused, their personality type is largely the same: “engineer.” Engineers tend to see things in literal absolutes, and deal in exact particulars. Exactly what size something should be. Exactly how it should function. This isn’t a quirk, it’s a necessity. A napkin sketch may be great for pitching an idea, but when it’s time to bring it to life, you need that engineering detail to make it happen. Without it, and without the engineer, there’s a good chance your ephemeral moment of brilliance will just wobble around in a vague lack of definition, never crystallizing into working reality.

You Have to Know What It Is Before You Can Build It

Whether it’s a complex multi-site initiative, or a simple functional addition, every time you request something, you are actually creating a specification for what needs to be done. In order to know what it will take to do something – even to know what the task is and if it is doable, certain questions need to be asked. The first priority is to determine exactly what it is that is desired. Napkin sketches and quick descriptions don’t provide much detail. Stop and consider this: regardless of the things that are in your mind (or more importantly, the things you haven’t even thought of yet), if your explanation doesn’t detail everything (which of course, it won’t – not in the first pass), the gap between what you explain, and the final particulars needs to be filled in. Do you want to have the person doing the building just “make stuff up” to fill in all the bits you didn’t? Even the simplest of tasks have elements that are not obvious until you go through a process of discovery and unpack the details. And those elements, well they can be the difference between X and 3X when it comes to the final tally of required resources and labor.

Additionally, for many (non-techy) people these days, much of the internet world is akin to what SF writer Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 fame) was talking about when he said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s mysterious. It seems like it can do pretty much anything. But in reality, all technology – no matter how wondrous – comes down to mundane particulars. Tech isn’t supernatural; it puts its pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. Some things are possible, some aren’t. Some things are easy, some are difficult. The best uses of technology go with the flow of how it already works. Ideas that are ignorant of the underlying technology can be the development equivalent of petting a cat the wrong way.

The Bottom Line Benefits of Geekery

So here’s the thing: Whatever your idea, there is a techie who is going to have to build it out into a final working result. It’s critical that they understand all of the particulars of what’s needed so everything can be included. And don’t think you can just get to the details later, because some details are simple additions, and others require starting over. It’s best to sort out what’s what up front.

When a seasoned techie begins asking questions and digging into the particulars of an idea, he or she is doing exactly what you need – extending an opportunity for you to collaborate with them and create the plan that will actually get you where you want to go.

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