Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom.

Who are the non-technicals?

Since I started working in the software industry, I rather often hear phrasing like this:

– “I’m non-technical, so this doesn’t seem to be for me.”

– “We need to communicate to the non-technical people too.”

My “non-technical” liberal arts education would have set me up to interpret these statements to be about Luddites, who denounce technology, worried that we will become slaves to the machines. However, it’s seldom people who are prone to break your laptop in protest that’s subject to the category of “non-technical.” More often than not, it’s people that have the same expensive phone and laptop that you have. It’s people who use e-mail, word processors, apps for all sorts of things, spreadsheets, robot vacuums, cars, and whatever back office system they have to endure at work?

Yeah, you probably see where I’m going with this. I don’t think the term “non-technical” is particularly helpful. Not as a self-description, not as a persona, and not as something we use to characterize other people.

In fact, to label people, as “non-technical” is probably reinforcing stereotypes and implicit ideas of power. The label used to give a particular agency to the people who make software with code, while it steals it away from those who don’t.

I often observe it used about one-self in a slightly self-deprecating manner: “Yeah, I don’t understand this; I’m non-technical.” If you say this about yourself, why should you be expected to have opinions and critical questions about whatever “technical” go on? In most cases, it‘s the other party that hasn‘t employed enough care or empathy to jump our of their specialized lingo to communicate what‘s at stake.

And when we use “non-technical” to decide on our communication strategy, does it help us? I suspect that it most often means that you need to communicate less about the particular features and implementation details of whatever you’re selling, and more about the problems that are representative for a wider group of people to whom you’re trying to sell. In probably all cases, you could say “value-based” or “customer-centered.”

Not understanding much from an article about the particularities of Typescript’s interface for polymorphic arrays doesn’t make you more “non-technical” than not having read Tolstoj makes you illiterate. And not (yet) knowing how to do programming with words doesn’t make you less technical as not having crawled over the English-channel doesn‘t make you less a swimmer.

I’m mean, I could get you started with programming in less than a day if you don’t know it already. Because you’re already “technical.” You are so technical that you already know a lot of the operational metaphors and models that go into coding. There nothing in programming you that’s beyond you if you can read this blog. Sure, it takes time to learn patterns and particularities. Sure, some people are more and less motivated by it.

But that hasn’t to do with their ability to maneuver technology. So think twice about what you mean, the next time you reach for “non-technical” to denote someone, including yourself