Polyglots, Plutonians, and Mercurians

By ​Charles T. Cranford

There’s an old joke which asks:

Q: What do you call somebody who can speak two languages?
A: Bi-lingual

Q: What do you call somebody who can speak three languages?
A: Tri-lingual

Q: What do you call somebody who can speak four or more languages?
A: Multi-lingual (or, as the crossword puzzle fans like to use the word, “polyglot”)

Q: What do you call somebody who can speak only one language?
A: American (or as we sometimes hear it called “back-home”…’Merican…)

Tell me you have never seen a real-life comedy where a “Merican” tourist is asking a native “Where is the bathroom…, por-favor?” As if using the word “por favor” (Spanish for “Please”) will make the previous words completely understandable in Spanish!!!!

I believe that one of the big problems that today’s communications professionals face is that we are an industry of “Mericans” – most of us speak only one language:

– Voice people speak Time Division Multiplexing and they like fixed-sized, digital 64 Kb/s channels
– Data people speak Statistical Multiplexing and like all the bandwidth they can get (though they will begrudgingly share it if they aren’t using it…)
– Wireless people speak analog or digital over Frequency Division Multiplexing or several new flavors of Digital Coding and use from 30-200 KHz up to 1.25 MHz of radio spectrum.
– Cable operators speak analog (and sometimes digital) over Frequency Division Multiplexing (and sometimes statistical multiplexing) and predominately use (for legacy purposes) 6 MHz channels

So it shouldn’t be a surprise when a CTO convenes a meeting of different communications professionals over a planning table and they begin to plan for the (Converged) future that they quickly and easily misunderstand what the other person (or industry) is talking about! This can drive a CTO or MIS Director crazy! How do you overcome this Technological Tower of Babel? It isn’t easy. But we can shed some light on what the problems are and what the chief solution is!

Understanding the Problem!

The word-picture that I most use with clients borrows from the famous ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ book series. In these books the experienced (seven-times-married) Dr. John Gray describes the stereotypical challenges that face men and women in their deep conversations as being like people from different planets trying to relate. In short, your concepts, communications and expectations will be based on your “planet of experiences”. Where you’re from dictates your native language and the meanings of words. One way to show an example is by using the word “commitment”. It is rumored that natives from Venus and Mars use that same word with considerable difference in meaning!

I would suggest that in a similar manner, people from different “planets of industries” will use the same words with, potentially, a vast difference in their meaning. Let’s just compare the voice and data people for starters.

Who is from where?

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then I would suggest that “Telephony People are from Mercury, and Data People are from Pluto” Timing is everything (or, not…)

Telephony People are from Mercury means that we have a “hot” planet – one that is very time-sensitive. The whole digital world is based on “something” happening every 125 microseconds (or 8000 times a second). Voice codecs (using Pulse Code Modulation, based on ITU’s G.711) output eight-bit samples 8000 times a second. Similarly, equipment on fiber-based links or rings chop their channels into the same 125-microsecond frames. Everything on Mercury is “hot”, and very time-sensitive. It would be totally unacceptable to have timing gaps in a voice call that causes the words to come out in a broken manner (e.g.: Good…Mor..rning..how….are. you today?)

The Data People on Pluto, though concerned with time, are much more lenient on responsiveness. It’s almost like their planetary mantra is “Delay happens” The Plutonian year seems like an eternity to the people from Mercury, but the Data People are aware that “good things come to those that wait”…like error-free transmissions that we’ll discuss below! To Data People a delay of a couple of seconds (totally unacceptable for the Telephony People) is not only acceptable, but is laudable. How long did you have to wait for your last web-page download…1/8000th of a second? Don’t think so…

What’d you say?

Errors, to the Mercurial World, are facts of life that are “not my problem”. If somebody is on a circuit-switched voice call and there is a burst of static, which “errors the voice”, then the receiver simply asks “What did you say?” (or, “Huh?” which is the North American protocol for “Excuse me, there was an error in transmission, could you please repeat your last phrase for clarity”). Errors, therefore, are almost trivial in nature.

Errors on Pluto, though, are an anathema! Just imagine your paycheck’s direct deposit where there was just a “tinsey-winsey” error in its transmission. So what if your paycheck’s ‘comma’ and ‘period’ changed places! Data people would rather throw away data with errors than to deliver it in a corrupted/errored state.

What’s a CTO/Director to do?

The first thing that a CTO needs to do is to understand that different languages are a normal part of the technological world – there is no babblefish we can borrow from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe*. The corporate juggler of information opportunities needs to be a polyglot to exploit the best return-on-investment opportunities.

You also need to be wary of what I call the vendors of “The Sirens Song of Simplicity” (with apologies to Homer…and not Simpson). Some vendors will tell you that “all you need to do is install their great Babblefish/PacMan solution and you won’t have to worry about any other technology”. As we’ll explore in another article, this Song will drive you off the Cliffs of Insanity, because “The Sirens Song of Simplicity” is counter to the Law of Thermodynamics (remember the word entropy…to us it means: it ain’t gonna’ get any simpler, it’ll get more chaotic!)

What does this mean? It means that an officer-level technical officer (and those aspiring to become one) needs to get back to the books, classes, and labs. The key concept, though, is “appropriate level”. A CTO may want to know how routers are configured, but it might not be a good return-on-investment if you already have several CCIEs working for you. This person may also be helped by knowing that this is not a quick process, nor is this a process that they, alone, have to undergo. Companies nationwide and worldwide are facing this same challenge! My most recent client consults have included a Fortune 50 company with a North-American-wide network, and a Russell 2000 company with Pan-European and Pan-Asian challenges. They both are struggling with how to make good investments with their network dollars.

A CTO also needs to be ready to learn like an artist paints. An artist will paint a scene, and then, after letting it sit for a while, they will revisit and apply a few more accents or shadows. They may repeat the process of “tweaking” many times over many weeks or months before they’re satisfied with this piece of art. But, more importantly, they also know another part of this process is that the work they created this year is better than the one they created last year. An artist is constantly working to improve their skills – just as a communications professional must do.

Lastly, lighten-up and have some fun! These technologies are like my children’s Lego® building blocks. There are many different ways to combine them. Brainstorm! Work with your staff, vendors, and users to figure out what business problems you’re solving and then find out what tools you have in your Technological Toolbox to help them. A Technology Polyglot simply has more tools and, therefore, more flexibility.

Don’t be “Merican”! Learn some more “Technology Languages”. Start a Take-a-Techie-to-Lunch program with your communications professionals. Learn from the knowledgeable people from other technology planets and don’t forget to ask nicely and say “Gracias”…