As I’ve been searching for jobs, I’ve noticed that many postings list as a requirement the ability to communicate with “non-technical” people. While it’s important for those with certain technical expertise to be able to communicate their ideas to those without it, this goal is not helped by characterizing some people as “non-technical.”
First off, many supposedly “non-technical” people in fact have advanced technical skills – just ones that don’t concern computers. Someone who can repair cars is still very technically capable even if they don’t know how to send an email. There’s nothing special about computers that makes people who understand them uniquely capable, important, or “technical”.
Even if we take “technical” as referring narrowly to computer skills, almost everyone in a modern workplace is technical at some level. If you know what a file is, that’s a technical skill – one that many people lack. To be sure, some people have more computer skills than others – but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. When you’re trying to communicate technical ideas, not everyone who you might consider “non-technical” is at the same level. An octogenarian just learning to send a text message is different from an Art History PhD who recently got into Digital Humanities is different from that kid in the “what’s a computer” commercial. Communicating with these three “non-technical” people is likely to require different strategies.
Furthermore, calling people “non-technical” underrates their ability to learn. We’re all at a certain level of technical proficiency, and we all have the potential to reach a higher one. Some people are discouraged from doing so because they think of that they’re not “technical” – that they’re not “computer people.” But in fact, there are no “computer people.” There are only regular people who accumulated bits of computer knowledge little by little – sometimes from being taught in school, but more often from facing their own computer problems with the confidence and will to learn. Far too many people lack that confidence because they learn to think of themselves as “non-technical.” It’s true that not everyone has time or energy to devote specifically to learning about computers – and they shouldn’t have to. However, anyone who uses computers at all will at times encounter organic opportunities to learn: we should avoid encouraging people to squander these in a fit of learned helplessness.
When we explain a technical concept to someone who lacks some of the requisite background, we should do so in a way that facilitates their own technical growth. This requires us to recognize that everyone is a technical person – some of us are just at different places in our journey than others.