Separated by a common language... IT English is different

I am not a stupid person, but I simply cannot keep up with all the new information technology (IT) terminology!

I know that every industry has acronyms and terms, but it seems that IT artifactis unique: every time a new methodology comes in, English words are redefined.  Today, IT English is expanding.

For example IT English uses Scrum (but not for rugby), Ruby (not for birthstones), Java (without caffeine), and Artifacts (but not from Egypt).  Certainly, English English is different from American English and Australian English, but IT English is a dialect unto itself.

If I, as an engineer with experience in IT, am daunted by the ever-changing IT English, how much worse is it for laypersons who work on software projects?  It can be intimidating.

I read an “introductory article” written by an IT colleague today and had to read and re-read it several times before I gave up. Despite visual aids and process flows, I felt I needed a geek-to-English dictionary to make sense of it.  (Yes, it was written in English.)

Most of us are not bilingual, so it should be no surprise that many technology professionals only know IT English. In fact, some do not even realize that there are other English dialects. When engineers find a new way to do things, you can expect a flurry of new acronyms and variations on IT English.

This happened with “waterfall”, client/server, web development, agile, lean, and Kanban. Once you understand that old words get new meanings, it all makes sense, but it is a learning curve every time.

Do you know that everyone (outside of IT) asks

Why can’t IT just speak English?

Outside IT, it’s no mystery why software projects fail (to meet user needs).  Just when users and the business learn enough IT English (technology) words to converse, a new method comes in and the dialect changes.

In my post earlier this week (IT’s all about the people, stupid), I touched on the need for “soft skills” in technology, and mentioned the communication factor.  Soft skills or EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) covers more than communication (such as empathy, consideration, mutual respect, cultural sensitivity, communication, and a host of other people skills), but communication is the linchpin.

My first IT English “encounter”

I’ll never forget my first engineering job in Alberta, Canada working for a pipeline engineering company. During the first week, a colleague suggested that I should “sign on” to the mainframe.  I gave him that “are you nuts – why would I want to do that and have to call IT?” look and walked away shaking my head. No one in his/her right mind would purposely “interface” with IT unnecessarily.

monitorAs luck would have it, I found myself working in IT a year later. On my first day, I had to sign on and predictably, the system crashed within an hour.  I became the network operations’ comic relief when they asked me my terminal address and I responded that I was on the eighth floor. Over muffled laughter, they told me they needed the 16-digit number on the side of my terminal (monitor)… and added that they were also on the 8th floor.

I had no idea that my English fluency would be so tested in IT.  While I knew that English is the language that separates so many across countries, I didn’t know it also was true with IT.

What is the solution for IT English?

misunderstandIf we truly want to make progress with technology, we need to recognize the walls that IT English puts up around us.  It’s not enough to know that there are walls and to converse with each other – we need to care about the misunderstanding that arises whenever we redefine English words and expect the world to understand.

IT needs to stop talking in acronyms and start translating our IT  English into English English or American English (a dictionary or savvy translator can help) so that when we talk technology, others will listen.

That is, if we truly want to communicate with the business.  It reminds menapoleon of the English Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) project:  did you know that it was originally started by Napoleon over a hundred years earlier?  The project stopped when Napoleon realized that the tunnel would not be a one-way deal…

What do you think? Am I being too cynical about IT?  Is there hope for IT English to become mainstream or vice versa?

(Fade to black with the strains of Dr. Doolittle’s “I want to talk to the animals…” )

Have a productive week!


P.s. Don’t forget to register for the #LSSC11 FREE Webinar series – Feb. 2, 2011 (noon-1pm PST — 3 -4pm EST!)  Session #1: INTRODUCTION TO KANBAN with Janice Linden-Reed. Register here:


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Comments (11)

  1. Pingback

  2. In other countries, such as for example here in Germany, we discuss whether and how many English terms are allowed in our own language.
    We, in other countries have the advantage that these terms are easily recognized as foreign words or technical terms.

    • Dear Thorsten,

      In Germany, I guess we are separated by an uncommon language. (LOL)

      I agree that you have an advantage that the “reserved/special” terms are easily recognized because they are called out as foreign technical terms. Perhaps this shows that IT is a language in and of itself in other (non-English) countries just as it is in English countries.

      Thank you for posting your comment@

  3. Carol,
    You are absolutely correct. IT english is a definitely, different animal to any other dialect of English. As to the implied desire for clear, concise information exchange; now that is not in the make up of IT technology. There is an arrogance there, not implied, but practiced, existence that others who do not understand them should stand aside and let the “experts” do the job. Unfortunately, the experts need to learn the soft skill of effective communication to not alienate their customer base. But some customers hire other IT “experts” to be a walking dictionary for them. Again unfortunately, those “experts” have the same attitude that they are talking to lesser beings when doing the translation.
    Just my opinion on IT “experts” after over 30 yrs experience as an SQE.

    • Hutch,

      I agree with your assessment. And the expert mentality is one that I believe plagues our industry (just as it plagues medicine and engineering). Nonetheless, when there is a problem, it doesn’t go away by ignoring it. Yet to fix it requires work and cross training – and often no one is willing to really step over to the “other side” even for a few hours.

      Thanks for posting your comment.

  4. Like Sophist GmbH says, it is somewhat easier for us who are not speaking English as a native tongue. Here in Finland we have (at least used to have) a committee that tries to translate acronyms and terms into Finnish. But speed of the IT development and new technologies is so fast that they just can’t keep up with it, and many times the translations and “Finnishisms” are just too clumsy or sound absolutely ridiculous. So, most engineers here prefer IT English, or some sort of dialect formed from IT English to Finnish.
    I’m not an engineer, but as an end-user I understand what problems may arise around a table in a project meeting, where end-users (when summoned) desperately try to understand what the heck the guys on the other side of the table are talking about.
    When my mom bought a laptop, I decided that I would at least try installing everything for her, because it would’ve been impossible to guide her through those processes over the phone. Mom’s IT knowledge was badly outdated, you see… She still calls me every now and then to ask for help, and somehow I’m relieved NOT being an engineer. For example, I compared “drive fragmentation” to slicing of a pizza, eating small pieces from here and there, and so on. I think she understood…

    • Thanks for your comment – can you imagine your mom on an IT project? I have never hear of “Finnishisms” but perhaps we should have ITisms for those terms that simply make no sense to anyone outside of IT… 🙂

  5. In the 80’s, I worked for a while in the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health as a secretary. The small department where I was working, was moving on from typewriters to computers. It was a huge change for those secretaries that had used only a typewriter for decades, unlike me, just graduated from business school and had at least some experience of computers.
    The Ministry organised training for the secretaries, and their teacher was the only IT geek in the Ministry. After the first course, one secretary was really confused and frustrated, because she couldn’t understand what the teacher had said. Instead of “Press the Return button” (“return” was written on the button), he said “Press Retukka”. It’s hard to explain, but this was an example of “Finnishisms”.
    It seems that IT professionals often like to show off their expertise by talking their special language that is absolute gibberish to others.

    • Your comment is insightful and it reminds me that people will often show off in situations where their security is threatened. I don’t know if this is the case with IT professionals or not, but there is definitely job security when what you do is a) absolutely essential; and b) whatever IT is must be so complex that only intellectuals can do it.

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Synchronicity! Carol, it’s fascinating that we did not know of each other yet published a similar grouse about the same issue in our differing industries. (Why we love to hate Consultant Speak! )

    Living in times of exponential change and accelerated information calls for an end to techno babble. The future belongs to those who can integrate and simplify complexity for the masses.

    P.S. I like your writing style, too! Glad to have found you through @swoodruff. I’ll be following you from my @EmpHigher Twitter account.

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