Talking to techies: lesson one, the word 'yes'

My main job just now is spec’ing up a Content Management System for a major government organisation. We’re in the unusual position of having bought a particular CMS product, without having a fully articulated, definitive vision for its eventual use. So a lot of my day is spent asking ‘we’d like to do X, can the product do it?’ Invariably the answer is ‘yes it could’; but it’s important to understand that they probably mean ‘no it can’t’.
Think of it like this: can you speak Polish? A developer would probably answer ‘yes’, based on the following.
He has the ability to pass air over his vocal chords, and can form shapes with his tongue and lips. So there’s no problem with the speaking part. Even if that fails, there are backup options based on his ability to type on a keyboard, or manipulate a pen. Always good to have a Plan B.
Polish uses more or less the same letters as English, so there’s no issue as regards character sets. Plus, you can usually recognise Polish by the number of Zs it uses, so you can try processing it even if there’s no explicit declaration of it being Polish input.
He maybe knows that Polska is the Polish word for Poland, and might even remember from 80s news footage that Solidarnosc means solidarity. So we’ve already proven that his memory can store information in Polish. If necessary, you can buy in mapping tables from Polish to English: they’re more usually referred to as dictionaries.
We’re on a roll now. Remember that union leader who led those shipyard protests, Lech Walesa? Except you pronounce it ‘vowensa’? Hey, we’ve even prototyped our ability to generate accurate Polish phonics from printed output.
And anyway, you meet Polish people all the time these days, and communicate successfully with them, albeit in English. But if we can do it in one direction, it shouldn’t be too much effort to do the opposite direction too.
Can he speak Polish? On the one hand, it can’t be argued that all the elements are there, and with enough time and effort, we could probably do something. So yes, yes he could. On the other hand… of course he bloomin’ can’t.
I hope colleagues will take this in the spirit in which it was intended… 🙂