Techsplaining Vs. Human-Centric System Administration

by | Apr 12, 2022

If you are looking for an “insert tab A into slot B” technical article… Sorry. This isn’t that but it’s still important for any Atlassian administrator.

The technical world is rife with tediously detailed articles. Too often, they leave out the human aspect. To that end, this treatise focuses on the real reason we do what we do for a living, and how we might best approach it.

This article is predicated on Atlassian administration and my decade of experience helping people use Atlassian software, coupled with <mumble> decades of general system administration. It should be noted that these thoughts can be applied to any kind of system administration.

So… what is this “real” reason for Atlassian administration?

If one looks only at the surface, the apparent reason is that we know how to administer an Atlassian system of some sort. However, the real reason we are around to administer this particular system is because real humans are using this system to do Real Things. Without humans using this system to do Real Things, administering it is purely an academic exercise. As such, we are here to ensure that this particular system supports, and continues to support, doing these Things.

Real humans successfully doing Real Things with this system is about as real as it gets.

Fine. That’s the “real” reason. What difference does it make?

These “real” humans we speak of (users of the system) very likely don’t understand our world from an administrator’s point of view. Understandable. Desirable? Possibly not. However, going deeper, these real humans may not even understand our world from a user’s point of view. Understandable? Possibly. Desirable? Definitely not.

If we take Jira as our example Atlassian system — especially Server/Data Center editions with what is too often “user hostile” stewardship — a possible lack of understanding from the user point of view becomes a very real problem. If this is the case and left untreated, you’re adding unnecessary angst to both your life as an administrator and their life as a human who needs to get things done.

“But it’s so simple to <insert activity>!” you say. It may well be to you, but it clearly isn’t to them. Thus we come to why the real reason we exist is to help real humans do Real Things. These real humans are either having difficulty doing the Thing or they aren’t able to even do it. We need to administer our environment for and with them and not because or in spite of them.

But don’t real humans ask so many “stupid” questions?!

No. They do not.

Your user base does not ask “stupid” questions or ask for “stupid” things. They ask for functionality they think they need and questions that they could really use an answer for. The aphorism, “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” definitely applies here and, quite frankly, if you’re not getting many questions, you may be in trouble. Your user base may have given up or, worse, no longer care.

Consider: You were not hatched knowing how to use and administer all these Atlassian products. Whether you realize it or not, “stupid” questions were asked even if you asked them of yourself. It’s an odds-on favorite that you once asked a “stupid” question that manifested as, “Oops. That was bad. I really broke the heck out of that.”

Alright. I will explain things to them.

That…is probably a Bad Idea. “Explaining” usually manifests as arrogance. Nobody wins in that scenario.

In recent times, the term “mansplaining” as well as the broader term “techsplaining” were coined. Note the “splain” part of these words. If explaining is potentially arrogant, ‘splaining definitely is.

One of my colleagues, when discussing this phenomenon, noted the very real barrier to adoption of Atlassian products in non-technical or majority female-staffed roles. She, herself, has been subjected to variations on the “splaining” theme, which either erected or bolstered this barrier.

Sure, Atlassian tools were born in the tech/engineering world, and if you are outside that world, Atlassian tools are often perceived as no good. However, that perception is no longer valid, especially when considering the broad capabilities of Jira and Confluence. Dispelling that perception will not happen by explaining things.


So what am I supposed to <insert expletive of your choice> do instead of techsplaining???

Instead of “techsplaining,” teach.

More importantly, while teaching, you also need to learn. That “stupid” question or request almost certainly is not stupid if you take the time to learn why it was posed in the first place. You have your area of expertise and they have theirs. When you learn about their area of expertise you can honestly support their needs. This is a two-way street!

As you learn your users’ worlds, they are learning yours and what you can do for them. As your partnership progresses, you better understand their needs while their questions and requests become more incisive.

Does this take longer than simply taking and doing or, worse, taking and rejecting requests? Yup. However, the bromide, “short-term pain, long-term gain” could be seen as relevant were it not for the fact that “pain” is exactly the wrong word. This is an effort bearing compound interest.

As you and your business partner learn about each other’s world, interactions become faster and more fluid. One can start to experience the cerebral pleasure of being interested or even excited about what your users do as you work to support them. Your users become excited to use your tooling and often start spontaneously lending user-level support to other users.

From Admin to Partner

Atlassian has crafted an environment where we can support pretty much all the Things. Are there applications offered outside the Atlassian ecosystem focused on a specific Thing? Yes. However, one can often see these as the technical manifestation of “splaining.” The developers are telling you how to do that Thing.

In particularly egregious cases, they may be a one-trick pony with blinders on, and maybe can’t even do the trick very well. If an application happens to use the word “enterprise” in their marketing… they often are not. Focusing on one area of an organization is not equal to the enterprise.

Starting with Atlassian tooling, coupled with learning your users’ needs and work, while teaching them what you can do for them, we make that transition from simply being an administrator. We become a partner in the enterprise — a very satisfying role to fill.

As a Jira-user colleague once put it, “I love how you get in my head and deliver not what I asked for but what I need.”


Mike Rathwell is Senior Technical Consultant at Atlas Authority.

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