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Techsplaining Vs. Human-Centric System Administration

Originally posted on the Atlas Authority blog

If you are looking for an “insert tab A into slot B” technical article… Sorry. This isn’t that but it’s still important for any Atlassian administrator.

The technical world is rife with tediously detailed articles. Too often, they leave out the human aspect. To that end, this treatise focuses on the real reason we do what we do for a living, and how we might best approach it.

This article is predicated on Atlassian administration and my decade of experience helping people use Atlassian software, coupled with <mumble> decades of general system administration. It should be noted that these thoughts can be applied to any kind of system administration.

So… what is this “real” reason for Atlassian administration?

If one looks only at the surface, the apparent reason is that we know how to administer an Atlassian system of some sort. However, the real reason we are around to administer this particular system is because real humans are using this system to do Real Things. Without humans using this system to do Real Things, administering it is purely an academic exercise. As such, we are here to ensure that this particular system supports, and continues to support, doing these Things.

Real humans successfully doing Real Things with this system is about as real as it gets.

Fine. That’s the “real” reason. What difference does it make?

These “real” humans we speak of (users of the system) very likely don’t understand our world from an administrator’s point of view. Understandable. Desirable? Possibly not. However, going deeper, these real humans may not even understand our world from a user’s point of view. Understandable? Possibly. Desirable? Definitely not.

If we take Jira as our example Atlassian system — especially Server/Data Center editions with what is too often “user hostile” stewardship — a possible lack of understanding from the user point of view becomes a very real problem. If this is the case and left untreated, you’re adding unnecessary angst to both your life as an administrator and their life as a human who needs to get things done.

“But it’s so simple to <insert activity>!” you say. It may well be to you, but it clearly isn’t to them. Thus we come to why the real reason we exist is to help real humans do Real Things. These real humans are either having difficulty doing the Thing or they aren’t able to even do it. We need to administer our environment for and with them and not because or in spite of them.

But don’t real humans ask so many “stupid” questions?!

No. They do not.

Your user base does not ask “stupid” questions or ask for “stupid” things. They ask for functionality they think they need and questions that they could really use an answer for. The aphorism, “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” definitely applies here and, quite frankly, if you’re not getting many questions, you may be in trouble. Your user base may have given up or, worse, no longer care.

Consider: You were not hatched knowing how to use and administer all these Atlassian products. Whether you realize it or not, “stupid” questions were asked even if you asked them of yourself. It’s an odds-on favorite that you once asked a “stupid” question that manifested as, “Oops. That was bad. I really broke the heck out of that.”

Alright. I will explain things to them.

That…is probably a Bad Idea. “Explaining” usually manifests as arrogance. Nobody wins in that scenario.

In recent times, the term “mansplaining” as well as the broader term “techsplaining” were coined. Note the “splain” part of these words. If explaining is potentially arrogant, ‘splaining definitely is.

One of my colleagues, when discussing this phenomenon, noted the very real barrier to adoption of Atlassian products in non-technical or majority female-staffed roles. She, herself, has been subjected to variations on the “splaining” theme, which either erected or bolstered this barrier.

Sure, Atlassian tools were born in the tech/engineering world, and if you are outside that world, Atlassian tools are often perceived as no good. However, that perception is no longer valid, especially when considering the broad capabilities of Jira and Confluence. Dispelling that perception will not happen by explaining things.

OK, OK, OK!

So what am I supposed to <insert expletive of your choice> do instead of techsplaining???

Instead of “techsplaining,” teach.

More importantly, while teaching, you also need to learn. That “stupid” question or request almost certainly is not stupid if you take the time to learn why it was posed in the first place. You have your area of expertise and they have theirs. When you learn about their area of expertise you can honestly support their needs. This is a two-way street!

As you learn your users’ worlds, they are learning yours and what you can do for them. As your partnership progresses, you better understand their needs while their questions and requests become more incisive.

Does this take longer than simply taking and doing or, worse, taking and rejecting requests? Yup. However, the bromide, “short-term pain, long-term gain” could be seen as relevant were it not for the fact that “pain” is exactly the wrong word. This is an effort bearing compound interest.

As you and your business partner learn about each other’s world, interactions become faster and more fluid. One can start to experience the cerebral pleasure of being interested or even excited about what your users do as you work to support them. Your users become excited to use your tooling and often start spontaneously lending user-level support to other users.

From Admin to Partner

Atlassian has crafted an environment where we can support pretty much all the Things. Are there applications offered outside the Atlassian ecosystem focused on a specific Thing? Yes. However, one can often see these as the technical manifestation of “splaining.” The developers are telling you how to do that Thing.

In particularly egregious cases, they may be a one-trick pony with blinders on, and maybe can’t even do the trick very well. If an application happens to use the word “enterprise” in their marketing… they often are not. Focusing on one area of an organization is not equal to the enterprise.

Starting with Atlassian tooling, coupled with learning your users’ needs and work, while teaching them what you can do for them, we make that transition from simply being an administrator. We become a partner in the enterprise — a very satisfying role to fill.

As a Jira-user colleague once put it, “I love how you get in my head and deliver not what I asked for but what I need.”

Partners.

17 comments

Curt Holley Community Leader Apr 12, 2022

Great blog @Mike Rathwell and one I can totally relate to. Not always easy to avoid "techsplaining" often just out of enthusiasm and forgetting how deep down the Atlassian rabbit hole I am in comparison to the people I'm discussing something with.

But I always try to maintain a empathetic approach and keep it relatable.

All part of the fun. 😄

Like # people like this

I am glad you liked it @Curt Holley and happy you are of the same mindset as I am. I suspect you aren't so much of a "splainer" as you are a teacher from what you say here. In this case, enthusiasm is a plus.

Like Anne Saunders likes this
Like # people like this

I'm mostly a BA, but in a very small shop where I also happen to be an Atlassian Site Admin, for these exact reasons. We've worked REALLY hard as a team to come up with ways to enable all of our (overlapping and sometimes interchanging) teams, including using a unified workflow and screen scheme for all of our software projects, which meant figuring out what everyone actually needed and what we could gently "hide" or leave out entirely. Basically, we started with UX interviews and A/B testing to implement our "standard project."

The struggle at onboarding can be very real for people who have used other work / task management systems or used Atlassian elsewhere, and had personal or team level control of their work. We have moved to published guidance for the big workflows and SOPs, and a Slack channel for ad-hoc questions and feature / system / process change announcements.

It's not always perfect, but it's given us a way to both democratize input and disseminate information so that we're continually solving the right problems together. 

Like # people like this

Thank you, @Elke Heinrichs 

@Anne Saunders , it would seem you are one of the true unicorn BA/Administrators that... gets it. You stated concisely the way this seriously comprehensive toolset can support an organization as a whole and the way to get there.

That struggle of onboarding people from elsewhere is a Thing. So many have come from where there was no governance that can turn the environment into a collection of unconnected worlds. They also may have come from a place that, for various reasons, caused them to "hate" Jira, for example. They may hate hosted Jira. It's almost always unfounded. If you do as both of you seem to be, it gets to where I have had creatives love hosted Jira and then go bonkers over Cloud.

Your closing paragraph in your comment is particularly apropos, @Anne Saunders . I do hope we see more discussion and movement around this.

Like # people like this
Taranjeet Singh Community Leader Apr 13, 2022

@Mike Rathwell Thank you for sharing this informative and though-provoking article for Atlassian Administrators and/or System Administrators!

Like # people like this

I am glad you liked it, @Taranjeet Singh 

Like Dave Rosenlund _Tempo_ likes this

My key takeaway:  Teach vs. Tech'splain.  heart

Like # people like this

That is exactly it, @Tanya Christensen and I hope we see more of it in our world.

"More importantly, while teaching, you also need to learn." 

This is huge, I think a lot of people have the misconception that Jira is/can only be effective for tech/dev teams but as you and I both know, there is a multitude of ways teams across a company can utilize the Atlassian suite to be more effective in their work. Learn, listen, pull out where the pain points really are, what aren't they saying? Working more heavily with creative teams, they also have many intricacies and special use cases, you have always found ways to take my ideas and more limited knowledge on Atlassian capabilities and brought things to life that vastly improved workflows beyond what I could have imagined. The partnership between Admins and users is a special one that needs to be nurtured, we learn and evolve together, always appreciate your insight, Mike.

Like # people like this

Thank you for your kind words, @myager . I always treasured our partnership and, as I noted in the article, it was a pleasure to build and evolve tooling for your teams and others there.

This is my Way and I am glad it is appreciated.

Like Dave Liao likes this

Yes. Teaching is the right thing to do. And yet for a number of reasons, teaching others well is a stretch for many people.

Like # people like this

I see that as well, @Matt Doar__ LinkedIn . We can continue to work on fostering teaching by example. The benefits to both sides of that equation in our world are clear.

Like Dave Liao likes this

I think this article and all of us in the comments have come very close to saying what is at the heart of this issue - for me, at least - without saying it explicitly. The central tenet is empathy.

People know when they feel dismissed or discounted, and they respond accordingly. When we prioritize team success, listen to learn, encourage, solicit and accept feedback gracefully, and teach instead of telling, we cultivate better experiences and better responses - whether that's more complete or faster adoption, or a user who doesn't like a change but still likes us. :D

Like # people like this

That is precisely where I was coming from on this @Anne Saunders . Too often, however, stating it explicitly frightens some humans off the nest. I am not sure why that is but the core of this boils down to foster empathy both directions and all the things are better. Perfect? No, but better or even just less bad is preferable to "we're not having fun here".

I also just might have been hinting overtones of diversity and inclusion. Diversity is what we are. Inclusion is where we must be. Respect is how we do it.

Like Dave Liao likes this
Dave Liao Community Leader Apr 15, 2022

@Mike Rathwell I heart this article so much. 💙

Tech is hard to use. It's not like you can pick up a hammer and know how to hammer a nail down, IT systems are completely (il)logical constructs, right?

We need more empathy in the world, especially when it comes to IT service management and delivery.

I am glad this resonated with you @Dave Liao

I think we could simply state that we need more empathy in the world. Those of us in our world, since we touch enough humans across the board, doing it in our context might at least move the needle a bit.

Like Dave Liao likes this

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