How to explain IT to end users
How to explain IT to end users
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Imagine how useful it would be if your company’s end users actually understood the IT department and a little bit of computer science. Here are 10 ideas for making that happen.

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Sometimes IT workers are forced to collaborate with non-technical people who don’t understand or consciously dislike your world, so here are some easy ways to help change that culture without causing a hassle.

Why? Because the more non-technical people (e.g., accountants, administrative assistants, customer service reps, marketing staff, lawyers, sales team, and so on) can understand your world, the more likely they are to appreciate and endorse your work, or the less likely they are to blame you for glitches beyond your control.

Following are 10 ways to change the IT department’s reputation from being viewed as a foe to becoming a friend.

1. Day of Code is already an annual practice in K-12 schools to introduce students to computer science, so why not do it for non-technical adults, too? Pick a high-level language like
JavaScript
or
Python
and have your students start with the traditional Hello World program. From there, code up a simple game or perhaps a database call.

SEE: Python is eating the world: How one developer’s side project became the hottest programming language on the planet (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

2. Host a web day. Give each person a random old PC. Guide them through the basics of installing Linux and then Apache. Plug each of these faux servers into a switch that also connects to pre-made DHCP server and an access point. Show each of your students how to obtain the IP address of their server, have them put index.htm files into the right directory, and tell each of your students the IP address for their server. Then they can connect from their phones or tablets into the access point to see their own personal little website.

3. Everyone loves robots. Whether it’s an inexpensive kit, LEGO Mindstorms, or something more advanced, you can divide groups of students into teams and have them program robots for friendly competitions. Make sure they understand why the robots act certain ways. It’s a great method for teaching how code on a screen translates to real-world actions such as reacting to a sensor or turning on a motor.

4. Soldering is a life skill! You don’t need microcontrollers or even any chips to teach this. Instead, start with a small breadboard and some components—batteries, LEDs, buzzers, switches, resistors, and capacitors. Demonstrate how resistors do in fact resist electricity, capacitors add power, and thus how bulbs/buzzers react accordingly.

5. It’s great to have a computer history day. Visit a museum, show a movie like Pirates of Silicon Valley, or bring in your old Commodore 64. But whatever you do, don’t botch that history lesson. Movies such as The Imitation Game, Hidden Figures, and Jobs are entertaining, but they also all take poetic liberty with the facts.

6. What does all that jargon really mean? Plenty of Dilbert strips show the pointy-haired boss and other non-engineers comically throw together mismatched buzzwords—”Let’s blockchain the cloud algorithm,” so to speak. One memorable strip shows the engineers replying to him, “Step away from the trade magazine”—which we certainly can laugh about here at TechRepublic. Put together a jargon file of the most misused terms in your office and explain in simple English what, if anything, they really mean. (“Cloud: A system by which one computer can abuse many users.”)

7. Security is perpetually changing, so users must change their ways with it. Design a lighthearted presentation where users must identify which attachments are safe to open, which links are tricks, and which websites are illegitimate. Kevin Mitnick’s company makes
software to gamify this
for email.

SEE: 10 ways to raise your users’ cybersecurity IQ (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

8. Listen! What if the IT department provided lunch once a month and lets users come in to ask anything they want? It’s great to explain technical concepts, but it is better to listen and thoughtfully answer questions.

9. Make an intranet page that highlights the work of women and minorities in computing. There is no shortage of people to feature. Organizations such as Black Data Processing Associates and Women in Technology are great places to start learning. There are many others.

10. Have a future day. Take 15 minutes each to explain about information technologies that are still maturing or just beginning to evolve. Explain the relevance, not just the underlying tech, of each development. Examples include containers, DNA storage, and non-volatile memory.

The key to making these ideas work is to constantly imagine being in your audience’s shoes. It is vital to make all of the sample lessons fun. When presenting a day of code, have people make a simple game. Show them what the steps do in plain English—don’t dive too deep into syntax. For web day, explain how style sheets relate to content formatting. Always stick to the big picture and avoid technical jargon.

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