Buh-bye to geekspeak


Being something of a geek groupie, I’ve always taken a fairly benevolent view of IT geekspeak. I hear a lot of it at home and see a certain amount of it in the pages of Computerworld U.S. I understand enough of it to be a bit dangerous – or just silly – such as when I make suggestions to our IT department like, “Have you tried rebooting the server?”

But it’s also true that this exclusionary practice of speaking in acronyms, technical terms and industry slang keeps IT at cross-purposes with the business geeks. Or, for that matter, anybody else who feels left out of the conversation once the jargon starts flying.

Two of the eternal verities of geekspeak are that every profession has it, and every special interest group enjoys using it. (Eternal verities is probably literary geekspeak). There are fashion geeks who refer to shoe designers by their first names and car geeks who speak reverently about the lift and duration of a cam lobe. There are business geeks who babble in spreadsheet terms and wine geeks who speculate about the degree of “malo” (malolactic fermentation) in a glass of chardonnay. There are even garden geeks who can reel off Latin plant names longer than a daylily stem (which is actually called a “scape,” but knowing that gives me away).

So take some comfort that IT folks are far from alone in this behaviour. Exacerbating the situation are the vendors and industry blowhards who collectively crave the opportunity to sound smarter than they are. When they run out of technoterms and ridiculous acronyms, they make up new ones (like renaming HR software as HCM for “human capital management”).

Why not just wallow in wide-area geekspeak and let the business types go off in search of a clue? Because it continues to hobble your management career and sabotage support (and funding) for your IT projects.

Deryck Jones, a former chief technology officer who now runs his own IT consulting business, saw marked improvement in his career path when he began paying attention to his communication skills. “Somewhere along the road, I stopped alienating those around me,” he told us. “I started talking like a real businessman instead of a geek.”

Assuming you want to, how to break the technobabble habit? Try the following three-step program:

1. Remain alert for IT code words that have real meaning in English. Remember that kernels mean corn to most people, Java is an island or coffee to most of the world, and open architecture could just as easily refer to a summer house without windows. (No, I don’t mean those Windows).

2. Think of your mom (or some suitably clueless significant other) when you’re explaining how something technical works or why an IT expenditure will benefit your company. That should send you in search of friendly, familiar words and analogies. (“You see, Mom, UDDI is like a big Yellow Pages for the Internet”).

3. Learn business strategy concepts and buzzwords, then sprinkle them intelligently into your conversations.

Trust me, once you get the hang of it, passing as a business thinker instead of a geekspeaker will be as easy as establishing an error-free, point-to-point connection with low latency and minimum cyclical redundancy checks.

Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld U.S. You can contact her at maryfran_johnson@computerworld.com.