Technical People Need to be Bilingual

I came to IT from the medical profession.  Whatever you do in the medical field, becoming fluent in “medicalese” is a must.  But by fluent, I mean not just understanding it, not just speaking it, but comfortable enough with it to translate. 

Imagine being a parent of a child newly diagnosed with cancer.  Your doctor tells you this:

Doctor: Your child has stage 4 neuroblastoma.  Treatment will involve four to six courses of induction chemotherapy, followed by surgery, radiation, stem cell transplant and monoclonal antibody therapy.  Any questions?

You: Just one.  What in the world did you just tell me?

This explanation (and everything that it entails) would make perfect sense to anyone fluent in medicalese.  In fact, it’s pretty simplistic.  Unfortunately, it’s Greek to the most important people of all: the parents of this child. Now, contrast that to this statement:

Your child has a type of cancer called neuroblastoma.  It happens when nerve cells don’t develop normally and spread – much like a weed.  Think of a dandelion that you blow on when it goes to seed.  The seeds spread, and if they find soil they like, they grow new weeds.  That is what is happening here. To treat them, we need to first kill off as many of the seedlings as we can while shrinking the original tumor.  We do that with a combination of drugs called chemotherapy. Think of it as using Roundup on a weed.  When we have things under better control, we can take the primary tumor out.  Then, we need to do everything we can to ensure it doesn’t come back.  So we’ll use radiation to zap and kill the cells, and stem cell transplant to cleanse the child’s system of other cells that could develop into tumors. Finally, monocolonal antibody therapy can attach to cancer cells and kill them.  Then we keep an eye on the child to ensure that we got it all.  It will take a long time. It will not be easy. But it is our best chance. Any questions?

Yes, there will be a million questions.  But now, the parents will have a better idea of where to begin.

The same thing is true of the DBA.  It is so easy to fall into a technical explanation!  Things that seem almost stupidly obvious to someone who does it every day are most likely going to be gobbledygook to a business user.  I fell into this trap recently (shame on me) and had to remember to be bilingual on the fly.  Witness the following exchange.  Talking to a business user who said their server was slow (note: this is paraphrased as it happened a while ago):

Me: You have a lot of ASYNC_NETWORK_IO waits.  Basically, SQL Server is dishing out the data faster than the app can take it.

Business User: What does that mean?

Me: (lightbulb!) Well, when we see that type of wait, it means that (insert app name here) is trying to drink from a waterfall.  It was asked for information, and SQL Server is giving that information out much faster than the application can handle it.

Business User:  Why is that happening?

Me: A lot of the application code only allows for a row of data at a time to be processed, while SQL Server has a lot of rows to give it.  So it has to wait for the application to finish.

Business User:  Oh! Can we do anything about it?

Me (thinking, not saying): Sure.  I could index this database and improve it substantially.  I could rewrite some of this code to better fit our needs.  We could take the entire app to the range and send it to Valhalla in glory.

Me (out loud): We are getting ready to go to a new SAN, which will help some.  But that is probably about it for now.

Or maybe this one:

DBA to CTO:  We need to call a meeting with the vendor of YYY application. Tempdb is about to fill on XXX server.

CTO: Help me understand why that is a problem?

DBA:  Think of tempdb as SQL Server’s scratch pad.  It’s where it keeps all its mental “notes to self.”  If it has no space to jot things down, activity on the entire server stops. We can increase the space on it, but this application is using a wildly disproportionate amount, and we need to discuss this with the vendor and find out what our options are.

I prescribe nightly treatments of Ola Hallengren’s Maintenance Solution for your server’s fragmentation issues and for early corruption detection.

As DBAs, our servers are our patients. It’s our job to not only know what is going on with them and be able to speak knowledgeably to our colleagues about issues and treatment plans but to help our business users and executive (the parents) understand and participate in that care with us!

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