The Mighty Metaphor: Your New Secret Weapon in Tech

The Mighty Metaphor: Your New Secret Weapon in Tech

This past weekend, I saw a post on Twitter saying if you want to level up your career in tech, you have to improve on your soft skills.

“True,” I thought. But I felt inclined to add to this statement.

I sent a reply back stating “On top of that, if you master the art of the metaphor you will go far.”

Sounds kind of cryptic and vague, but I said it like that intentionally. I wanted people to engage with my statement. I wanted an opportunity to immediately prove my point.

I didn’t have to wait long before somebody asked for more details. I was happy to explain.

Being successful in tech is about relaying thoughts, ideas, and patterns easily to other people.

Consider the elevator pitch. It is a classic sales technique that says “how would you sell your product/site/service to someone if you only had the time to get to their floor in an elevator?”

You have to be quick and concise. You have to make sense. You have to be relatable. If you can’t do that in 30 seconds, you’re either rambling or have gone too deep in your explanation.

Being able to explain a complex solution in a simple way is a differentiator. It’s what makes people great. Today we’re going to figure out how you can practice it so you can become a master communicator.

By the way, in case you didn’t catch it - I used the elevator pitch as a metaphor to help describe the importance of metaphors.

Keep It Simple

When you are explaining a complex subject to someone unfamiliar in the area, they aren’t going to pick up on some of the things you assume they know. If you use an acronym or a shorthand phrase, the person you’re speaking with might not have any idea what you’re talking about.

They will probably nod their head to be polite, smile, then start thinking about something else as you then go to waste both your time and theirs.

But if you relate your topic to something they know, chances are high you’re going to keep their attention. They will likely remember your explanation, too.

When picking a metaphor, make sure to use something your audience is familiar with. If you try to explain something with a niche-y metaphor, like relating something to how welding works… well, it might be lost on a few people.

But if you keep it simple and talk about everyday objects or situations, you’ll capture the attention of your audience.

For example, I was explaining multi-part uploading in AWS S3 the other day and why it was important. I was talking to a non-technical audience of stakeholders, so being short, concise, and simple was the key.

My metaphor was as follows:

Imagine you have to get a long pipe through a funnel. If you try to pass the entire pipe through, it works, but you have to wait for the whole pipe to get through. But if you cut that pipe up into little pieces, you can send multiple through at one time.

The whole thing can’t go through at once because the funnel spout isn’t wide enough for all the pieces. But you will be able to get multiple pieces through at one time. If a piece gets stuck, just try the it again, you don’t need to retry the whole pipe.

Metaphor of how an multi-part uploads are like passing things through a funnel Photo by Yosef Ariel on Unsplash

This metaphor describes how uploading a large file is made simpler by breaking it up into smaller chunks. Not all chunks can be uploaded at once because of the bandwidth of the end user machine. If a chunk fails to upload, just retry the chunk; the entire file doesn’t need to be uploaded again.

By relating the complex subject of multi-part uploads (usually just saying that phrase by itself loses my wife’s attention) with something basic like a funnel, I was able to convey how it works in a simple way.

Pay Attention to Everything

You never know what will make a good metaphor. Pouring milk into your cereal as part of your morning routine or making a left turn on a green light are scenarios everybody can relate with.

Be intentional when you interact with everyday objects. Don’t take them for granted. Make sure to focus on all the pieces involved with the task at hand.

I am currently remodeling my house. I have a lot of back and forth with contractors on what should go where and which wall needs to place here or there. Needless to say, I consume a lot of blueprints.

While I was preparing for a presentation on dynamic API test generation, I was looking for an easy way to describe an Open API Specification document.

Turns out, a blueprint was the perfect metaphor. An Open API Spec (OAS) is a definition document for your API. Just like a blueprint is a definition document for your house. It shows you where the windows are, where the walls go, and if there are any secret passages going in and out of the house.

Metaphor of how an Open API Spec is like a blueprint

Every last detail of that house is written down in that blueprint, as I have recently discovered. Exactly like an OAS file.

By pulling from my recent experience, I was able to get a metaphor that everybody understands. I could describe an unknown concept to hundreds of people with a multitude of backgrounds quickly and easily.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Like any skill, coming up with powerful tech metaphors for takes practice. But that’s really all it takes. Practice. Everybody can do it.

If you want to harness the power of the metaphor, just start. Describe what you’re doing to your team in the terms of a metaphor. Practice ahead of time so it flows easily.

With practice, you’ll quickly realize that relating a complex solution to a simple one really isn’t that difficult. You interact with hundreds of simple flows/objects/patterns every day. Chances are high you will have a lightbulb moment (another metaphor) and things will start clicking.

You might start realizing that concepts you thought were hard before seem much simpler. Things will start making more sense. Your comprehension of software will go up.

Metaphors help not only your audience, but you as well. Tying difficult problems to familiar solutions will help reduce confusion and increase productivity.

A good software developer makes a complex solution out of a complex problem. A great software developer makes a simple solution out of a complex problem.

Be great. Reduce the complexity and boost common understanding of what you’re doing.

Where To Start?

Need help starting? Take an already familiar concept to you, like git, and think how you would explain it to a five year old.

This kid is five, so no technical words are going to make sense. What is something a five year old is familiar with? Crafts? We can roll with crafts.

Metaphor of how making crafts is like git Image by Jan Kosmowski from Pixabay

Your mommy has yellow and blue construction paper. You want to make confetti, so you ask her what she has (fetch). She tells you she has two colors, and you ask if you can have some (pull). She gives you the construction paper and you start your crafts.

When you’re done, you want to make sure mommy approves. You ask her to look at what you have and see what she thinks (pull request). She tells you it is awesome and to give it to her so she can show everybody. You hand her the confetti (merge) so she can share it with others.

I have two small kids, so this one is highly relatable to me. The point is - find things that are relatable to both you and your audience and make connections.

Over time, metaphors will become second nature to you. You’ll be able to relay complex ideas to the right sets of people at your job without giving it a thought. You will be seen as the person who can “translate developer” and be highly sought after for consultations and other fun projects.

If you want to advance in your career, yes, improve your soft skills. You want to get even further?

Learn how to explain using the power of the metaphor.


Allen Helton

About Allen

Allen is an AWS Serverless Hero passionate about educating others about the cloud, serverless, and APIs. He is the host of the Ready, Set, Cloud podcast and creator of this website. More about Allen.

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