Showstoppers shouldn’t just refer to software bugs

If you care about information – and IT managers should – you should care about words, and how they are used. Every weekend in the Globe and Mail’s Review section, Warren Clements writes a column called “Word Play” which focuses on the specific etymology and evolution of a term or phrase, and his most recent piece got me thinking about the way the technology industry co-opts words for its own purposes.

Clements discussed the history of the term “showstopper,” tracing its roots in the mid-1920 theatre circles as a way of describing a great performance to its more negative connotation as a major obstacle to getting something done. He noted that software engineers in particular used showstopper to refer to really bad bugs. Although he makes reference to showstopper as a software term as far back as 1975, it gained higher profile in 1994, when Zachary G. Pascal published Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft.

“I would not dream of speaking ill of computer users, typing this as I am on a computer keyboard,” Clements writes, “but what a boringly literal sense of showstopper that is. The original meaning of showstopper has romance and figurative heft. IT should not be lost to the software interloper.”

Or it the software industry has to use it, the context should be appropriate. In a blog post last year, Jake Scruggs reflected on the ease with which we hysterically apply such terms. “The funny thing is, most of the bugs will be logged at the highest levels. Literally 50 per cent of bugs are given such a status as to make you think the app is in shambles. Except that when you actually open up any of them to see what could possibly be so horrible, you find things like: missing fields, pages that should be pop-ups, and misspelled text,” he writes. “Today, while I was working on a super ultra critical showstopper bug, I had some time to reflect on this phenomena. The bug was this: One of our models was missing a field.”

On the other hand, what would happen if we used showstopper in a software discussion in a more positive way? As Clements points out, “metaphorically, a showstopper is a good and admirable thing, even if it leaves other performers to cool their heels.” There is something antithetical about this notion in technology, where the goal of most products and services is to keep performance of business processes moving forward, ever faster and hopefully to accomplish more in less time.

And yet, maybe we are reluctant to talk about positive IT showstoppers because they are so rare. A showstopper could also be seen as a killer app – something that causes us to cease or abandon previous ways of doing things to achieve a better result. For correspondence secretaries, e-mail was a showstopper. For companies that managed to avoid catastrophe by using data to make better decisions, business intelligence was a showstopper. Among desktop users who are growing frustrated with upgrade hassles with on-premise software, Web-based applications are a showstopper. They are the technologies that not only offer convenience but give you, at least the first time you implement them, that momentary sense of wonder at what mankind is able to do and an inspired sense of possibility.

CEOs and even CIOs sometimes talk about a vision of the future where business and IT will be aligned, and manual processes become nearly extinct. They abuse the term “solution” to talk about how they will deal with ongoing problems. Maybe some day those solutions will arrive. In the meantime, the show must go on.

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