Where Voldemort meets software licenses

My software licensing job is actually a communications job. 

What now? How can that be? Licensing is not the same thing as communicating!

It’s like this: I don’t deploy software myself. I work with people who deploy software. For them to deploy software correctly, they must know what “correctly” looks like.

For that to happen, I must effectively communicate both what “right” looks like and what can happen if not-“right” is done. The consequences can be pretty gnarly, about which I’ll say more in a future post.

To bring this closer to home for most people, I’ll draw on the world of Harry Potter. I think it’s safe to say billions of people in the world are more familiar with all things Potter than they are with any single thing software licensing (and the many possible catastrophes related).

If my job is to protect you from Voldemort and I can’t be with you at all times, I must let you know important facts about Voldemort. Given this objective, which facts are the important facts? Those fact’s that’ll best equip you to keep you away from direct encounter with Voldemort:

  • His physical appearance
  • A couple of examples that make crystal clear that “he’s dangerous” is more than just a matter of personal opinion
  • Places he’s most likely to be found, and thus places it’s best to avoid

If I give you only those facts about Voldemort that he’d post on a dating profile (“likes: big light shows, all things serpentine, good times with good friends; dislikes: Harry Potter, muggles, mudbloods”), you might get lucky. You might also become Voldemort toast, because I made–to put it lightly–some poor communication choices in light of my objective.

(Where Voldemort’s concerned, it’s important for my stakeholders to grok that his idea of a good time is probably not like their idea of a good time.)

I didn’t get any of this when I started working in software licensing. I thought I’d succeeded if I’d expressed anything. Whether it was actually understood was, I thought, beside the point. 

(If I wrote you a ten-page essay on why Voldemort’s take on mudbloods was philosophically wrong, hey, man. It was your bad you went to chat with him, not realizing this was his way of life, not a thought exercise!)  

When I first started working in software licensing, I’d write three-page emails summarizing key licensing terms. For some reason, people didn’t read these, but I kept at it for a while. I figured I just had to write three better pages, and that’d do the trick. 

Eventually, I realized that three pages was just too long. I aimed for one page. By itself, this didn’t seem to do much, so I began putting all these words into bullet points. Occasionally, someone would read the whole page and ask a question, leading me to cheer and think I’d really done it. I’d found The Way to get license terms across, forever, always, and in all cases!

I then noticed I was getting a response from maybe one in ten people. I hadn’t, in fact, found The Way. Darn it.

A few years ago, I began putting key licensing costs and terms into a simple worksheet. Rather than emailing these and calling my job done unless folks emailed back with questions, I’d set up time to review live, explain what the review was for, and walk folks through the worksheet–notably, the places in licensing agreements where Voldemort tends to live. Without ever once actually mentioning Voldemort, this proved much more effective than dumping licensing novellas in people’s inboxes and hoping for the best.

Recently, I began adding some basic graphics. For someone who’s had a lifelong love affair with words, moving this direction wasn’t at all intuitive. Fortunately, I began to see that what was intuitive to me was deeply counterintuitive to others. A picture could truly be worth a million words, so I tried incorporating pictures.

I’m still not great at expressing licensing risks in images. Thankfully, though I intend to keep striving, I don’t have to be an expert. Even basic graphs can capture attention in ways that short bullet lists often can’t.

(Pictures must also be carefully chosen. If the only picture I show you of Voldemort is his dating profile pic of him petting a kitten, whoops. You don’t see the snake to which he’s about to feed the kitten, and we’re back on Voldemort toast track.)

Several years ago, I thought I’d found The Way to successfully communicate licensing terms: one-page blocks of text. Today, I know there’s no one way. And why? Because there’s no one way of thinking.

If my goal is to get folks who deploy software to deploy correctly per the license agreement, I must help them understand both what correct deployment looks like and what can happen in cases of incorrect deployment. That’s my expertise, not theirs!

I must meet them where they are with information that’s:

  • succinct
  • relevant
  • important
  • actionable

If I do any less, I’m not empowering anyone. 

What anyone chooses to do with the information I give them is another matter. I don’t have any say in that! 

What I have a say in is what I work to express, and how I check that it’s been understood.

If I want you to stay away from Voldemort, I don’t show you his dating profile and leave it at that. See above for what I do show you.

If I want you to stay away from costly software deployment errors, I don’t share sizzling marketing videos showing software solving all your problems without creating new ones. I do show you things like graphic depictions of other customers paying $50,000,000 for getting licensing wrong

My job is about software licensing. But since my personal understanding of software licensing is only a start, my job is also, as I hope I’ve helped demonstrate, at least as much about helping other people grow their own (accurate!) understandings.

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