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Does Your Integration Partner Speak Your Language?

Sept. 1, 2017
As a Costa Rican software engineer, I see myself as having two native languages — Spanish and Technology. But to succeed, I’ve had to learn others. And I’ve discovered that two people can be speaking the same language yet not understanding each other at all.

Mandarin and Spanish are the world’s two leading languages, based on numbers of native speakers. Mighty English can claim only third place.

English, however, is by far the most prominent second language. Millions of people, in every country on Earth, choose to learn English because it’s the lingua franca of business.

As a Costa Rican software engineer, I see myself as having two native languages — Spanish and Technology. But to succeed, I’ve had to learn others. And I’ve discovered that two people can be speaking the same language yet not understanding each other at all. Especially when discussing subjects they’re passionate about.

My Native Language: Technology

Fifteen years ago, I graduated as a software engineer. It was inevitable that English would become my work language; my country is packed with foreign IT companies, and English is the common denominator. In Costa Rica, all the jobs that allow you to make an impact in the world are English-based.

Wet behind the ears but raring to go, I started my first job. I quickly deepened my knowledge of the Technology language, building modules and systems. Typically, I didn’t really know what my work enabled, or where it fit in the real world. I just wanted to create software and learn as much as I could.

The Next Language: Manufacturing

When I started at Factora, my initial training was similar to my previous job. Then, 14 months in, I visited my first factory.

I saw the big rolls spinning, watched the production lines, took in the process from raw material to finished product. And things began to make sense, to fall into place.

But back then my questions to production managers and quality control engineers would still be in the language of Technology. I’d ask:

  • What do you want on the screen?
  • What are the requirements of the system?
  • What do you want the system to look like?

The application was my focus. Not their problem or their goals.

But I had great mentors, and with their help I began to learn a new language — the language of Manufacturing. Unlike the Technology language I already knew, the language of Manufacturing can’t be self-taught. You can’t learn it online, or at school. You have to go there, you have to be there.

As I grew in my role, I increasingly learned to talk to senior production people in their language. Today, my starting questions might be:

  • What problem do you need to solve?
  • What’s your OEE?
  • Can you tell me more about your downtime?

Next, we’ll move to questions like: How long does it take this bottle to get from this point to that point? How many packs are wasted by this machine per hour? What problem are we actually solving?

My Third Language: Business

In my job, you have to learn the language of Manufacturing before you can learn Business. And the business language is really interesting. Some of the customers know it well and think only in it. For others, say a site manager who has spent his career climbing the ladder of factory management, the Business language is still a bit foreign, less natural. Others are trilingual, comfortable in all three languages.

But they share one common quality, their respect for my ability to move between languages. Even if we start with a business topic — say, falling profitability — they might suddenly switch to discussing Windows 10, or their server, or their issues with a palletizer. They need to know that I can speak Technology and Manufacturing, too. That way, they know I know my job.

Essentially, the business person always knows what they want. But their focus in not on exactly how it will occur — what they care about is efficiency and a rapid ROI. Business topics will typically be larger, e.g. we’ve lost half a million in profitability last year. Manufacturing topics will be smaller: our two-hour start-up is killing our OEE. And technological topics will be even more specific.

The B-M-T Model

Originally, my company, Factora, was the product of a merger between two manufacturing entrepreneurs, both of whom were dedicated to speaking to customers in their language. As a result, that value is enshrined in our culture.

We hire production managers and industrial engineers who were born speaking Manufacturing. We have systems engineers who think in C# and SQL Server. We have aerospace engineers who think in Structural Load. But everywhere, the gold standard is to be able to speak each other’s languages. So we can go to our customers and speak to them in their language, about their issues and their goals. It’s an established path.

If you followed the Harry Potter series of blogs written by our president, Charles Horth, you’ll remember he spoke of the Factora B-M-T model. That model’s underlying premise is that you need the input and buy-in of all three groups — Business, Manufacturing and Technology — to succeed in any factory change initiative. And to work that way, we all need to be able to converse with each other, in a way we all understand.

We all have an inner geek here. But our true passion, the one that gets us out of bed in the morning, is applying our skills to fix the customer problem — and to find the new opportunity, in whatever language necessary.

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