The non-techie translation guide: What are these nerds really saying?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 14, 2014

From The News Desk

If software is eating the world, then tech jargon is the bits of food stuck between your teeth. With startups going after a whole range of traditional industries, from hotel rooms and eyeglass sales to taxi transportation and cooking, the need to understand tech talk is more important than ever. For an outsider -- as I was a mere eight months ago -- I can attest that terms techies take for granted have not yet penetrated the consciousness of the masses.

I'm reminded of that every time I chat with someone outside the industry. To them, the "Cloud" is just the iCloud service that lets them access Mac documents if their computer crashes. Don't even bother dropping API or SDK or other technical nonsense. Their eyes will glaze over.

Not that the need for non-technical workers to learn tech jargon isn't there. The era where the techs and the non techs can speak different languages has passed, and digital globalization is upon us. Older entrenched industries, be they retail, media, travel, or financial services, recognize that their success depends on having the best digital experiences and technologies. That's where the battles for consumers will be won or lost.

Vinay Trivedi saw that need working for a startup and then a VC firm. He studied computer science in college, so he would serve as the translator for the techies and non-techies. It became obvious to him there needed to be an easy way for non-programmers to learn all about such systems. He decided to spend his nights and weekends for the last year and a half researching and writing exactly that.

Trivedi's book is called "How to Speak Tech: The Non-Techie's Guide to Technology Basics in Business." It's available as an e-book or paperback and was published by Apress at the end of December. Despite getting very little initial press, "How to Speak Tech" is slowly getting noticed. On January 16th, it was ranked no. 6 out of all Business Technology books on Amazon.

Is it a gripping, thrilling read that keeps you on the edge of your seat? Not exactly. Narrative and humor don't figure highly here. There are no fun comics or delightful puns. It opens with the phrase, "The progenitor of the Internet." In Trivedi's defense, that's the worst line in the whole book. It's unfortunate it's the lead. The rest of it is far more comprehensible -- dry, but easy to digest.

"How to Speak Tech" has 12 chapters, ranging from overviews like "The Internet" and "Hosting and the Cloud" to "Software Development: The Process" and "Promoting and Tracking: Attract and Understand Your Users." Trivedi goes over programming languages, open-source projects, debugging systems, and all sorts of other good Silicon Valley juice. Even for the engineers among us, bits and pieces of the book could probably fill in knowledge gaps. You may be the best Ruby on Rails coder around, but how well do you understand Internet security threats?

There's this big cultural crusade happening to teach the world how to code. The US ran its first Hour of Code awareness event during Computer Science Education Week this year, backed by tens of millions of dollars from Silicon Valley elite like Reid Hoffman and Bill Gates. The UK has made coding a mandatory part of primary and secondary public school education. Some companies are claiming the developer is the new king, and masses are flocking to take wildly expensive bootcamp courses to learn how to code.

Yes, learning to code is a useful skill, one that will only grow in importance. But this book reminds us that, while there's a whole range of other types of professionals who don't code and won't need to, they will need to become tech-literate. Aside from just cramming Ruby on Rails classes down people's throats, there needs to be resources to bridge the gap between those who eat, sleep, and breath tech, and those who will be working alongside them.

I could see "How to Speak Tech" benefitting plenty of non-technical employees in Silicon Valley, ranging from reporters covering startups, to PR people trying to pitch startups, to the normal rank-and-file community managers helping to keep startups going. I wish I had it when I was getting indoctrinated in the SV way my first few months at Pando. It would have been a helpful crash course.

Of course, the tome is by no means an expertise-maker. There were some glaring holes, bits I was looking forward to reading -- like a section on growth hacking or a better definition of an SDK -- but they were nowhere to be found.

It may not be worth reading for those steeped in startup tradition, but for any newcomer flocking to the Bay -- and there's plenty of those -- it's a quick and easy primer.

At the next work meeting when your boss starts pondering whether Ruby on Rails is the best programming language for the SaaS product the company is hoping to build to allow customers to access everything they need from the cloud, you'll understand.