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Buzzword Bingo

Dilbert Buzzwords Devoteam

By John Menzies, Enterprise Architect, Integration & Architecture, Devoteam

Buzzword use is nothing new, it’s been around for a millennium, it predates digital technology and modern marketing significantly. Everyone that has worked in IT will have heard, at some point, the term Buzzword Bingo, it’s been around for decades. Initially buzzwords constituted ready-made blocks of language that allowed us to communicate efficiently. Thank you allows us to convey gratitude and appreciation in short hand, the responses have varied through time and by location (you’re welcome, no problem, my pleasure, etc). These ready-made blocks evolved differently across geographic regions and meant that understanding was often left as a local colloquialism.

Other buzzwords exist from the natural desire for a speaker to appear more educated than they really are or try to take ownership, the egoic mind. There is a proliferation of buzzwords in the technology arena that are born out of a need to convey complex ideas quickly. Conveying an abbreviation, easily remembered, is only valuable when the speaker and listener have even a reasonable understanding of the word (or phrase) being conveyed. This could then turn into the desire to appear more intellectual than we really are. Have you ever wanted to demonstrate your knowledge on a topic to have someone then correct you? I have, often. If you’re able to discuss it you may also discover that the error could be on both sides, or the other way around. We grasp onto the words themselves and soon forget about the underlying definition, intention or meaning.

The problems we’re trying to solve with digitisation are the same ones we’ve always tried to solve. We want work completed in shorter times with higher levels of quality. We’re aiming for efficiency. We introduce new words to convey the same concept simply because the method is different. In Systems Integration, we started with Point to Point Integration patterns that evolved through the introduction of a Service Bus into a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). Moving monolithic services (applications) in an organisation started to become cumbersome, and Microservices were born. Similarly, with Microservices we wanted to get back to basic principles and now we have Modern APIs and the movement to an API First culture. We’ve come full circle, APIs were being used when we developed Point to Point integration patterns. The problem we’re trying to solve is identical (APIs have been around since the establishment of component based programming). We want to move data from one place to another in an efficient manner.

The introduction of buzzwords, and my favourite, the TLA (three letter abbreviation or acronym), risk localisation of the definition. PVT can mean Performance Verification Test or Production Verification Test, and I’m sure there are other localisations of that particular TLA. Discussions are made efficient for those in the know, but become difficult when talking with people, even from the same industry, from another geographic location or with a different history. That could be as simple as another office in the same company. When speaking with people that are not tech-savvy the result is that we lose our audience. Those in our audience that have heard the buzzwords, but don’t understand them, will want to appear smarter; pride kicks in. No questions are asked to clarify the language. The result at best is confusion with a nice dose of misalignment on understanding between parties. The evolution of these conversations, when left unchecked, is the evolution of the definition beyond its initial meaning. When listeners ask questions to clarify, if the conveyor of the buzzword has an incorrect understanding, is a definition that is skewed from the original. Summaries are made, the original meaning is lost and depending on the number of people the word passes through the idea can land far from its origins. Agile has become a delivery method (have you ever heard a project manager describe the way the project is being run as “agile”?). It started as a concept, and is now a summary to describe SCRUM, XP, Lean and others. These prescribed methods while similar hold some key differences that may be critical to the context of the conversation you’re having.

The digital arena, technology, is increasing in complexity at a pace never seen before, and it will never evolve more slowly than it is now. We need to ensure we are conveying improved ideas with increased efficiency or conversations will become convoluted. Improvements in efficiency, defining a new method, does warrant a new name. No solutions come to mind to address the proliferation of buzzwords. The pace of change may mean it’s not possible. I think one of the closest analogous examples is the scientific community, where there are many complex terms, methods, processes, etc. Within this community there are standards and governance bodies (with a high level of democracy and self-validation) that are used to control the published terms. Marketing is kept separate from the science behind it. For the laymen it may be difficult for consumers of this industry to differentiate the products but there are definitely greater levels of diligence, and awareness within the industry of the distinction between marketing of a product, and the actual product itself. In the digital world, we need to find a way to instil greater motivations for people to dig deeper than the name and understand the real meaning behind the words we use, often without a second thought.

It’s been interesting writing this blog and discussing points around it with others. There have been many debates on use of the English language and a lot of learning, on my part, of some of the history and evolution of language. With up to 1,000,000 words, many meaning the same thing, English is a language that has a solution for everything. But it is also an evolution derived and adapted from Latin and handed down through French, Italian, Spanish, German and even Icelandic and Scandinavian influence (‘th’ in words like ‘three’ and ‘thought’). The point at the end of the day is that we need to communicate, we learn and introduce new ways to make that communication more efficient. We should be open to asking what something means if we don’t know or aren’t sure, and we shouldn’t assume that the people we listen to have a complete understanding of the buzzwords they’re using either.