iT1 Resources

What A CIO Wants You To Know About IT Speak

As an IT professional, tech geek, and engineer, I often use words or terms that do not translate well into everyday language. Writing this post, I had to revisit the content many times to ensure the explanations of the IT terms made sense to non-IT people. The technical jargon habit is not limited to me, IT, or any one profession. Many people in every profession devolve toward the TLA (Three Letter Acronym) as a communication device. Occasionally this is intentional as a way to keep outsiders in the dark or at least make them easy to identify. However, most of the time the TLA emerges as a way to expedite communication, particularly email or texting.

A prime example of the TLA is an old IT term “SQL” which should be pronounced ess-cue-ell but most IT people call it “sequel.” The real name is Structured Query Language, which is why IT people chose the TLA version many years ago. Who wants to say or type Structured Query Language thousands of times when SQL can be understood to mean the same thing?

The issue with TLAs and other language shortcuts is that you alter the intent of your communication. As an IT person you may start a discovery conversation with a customer fully intending to capture the customer’s technology need, but by the fifth word using IT Speak the customer is lost and the communication becomes a test of the customer’s technical knowledge rather than a needs discovery conversation. The use of language shortcuts destroys communication intent and creates a negative experience for everyone involved.

To overcome the communication damage caused by IT Speak and other language shortcuts, use your words. One of my favorite project managers introduced the habit of telling everyone in the room to use their big words and grown-up voice. Yes, it annoyed everyone in the room or on the phone, but it caused everyone to reset their language so that the words were not distracting from the project deliverables. By improving communication for everyone on the project team she delivered projects that other project managers could not. This highlights the power of words, both good and bad.

A conversation should not be a test. The purpose of any professional communication is to share information and doing so requires that both the transmitter and receiver of the information share a common vocabulary. As a customer of IT services, you can say “use big words” to an IT team member. As an IT professional, you must find ways to overcome IT Speak so that your customer can share their thinking and needs without fear of failing your test.

Below I offer a few of the current fear-inducing IT  Speak terms so that customers can see the words are not special and have no magic powers. In addition, IT professionals can see how confusion and fear emerge when you string three to five IT Speak shortcuts into one sentence. For example, our API delivery methodology is Agile and begins with a story that goes on to the backlog to claim resources in the CI/CD pipeline. IT people reading the sentence want to correct my word placement and customers of IT services are rereading the sentence trying to guess what it means.

Current IT Speak Hit List

Agile – A process that breaks a big goal into smaller deliverable work items.

API – Application Programming Interface, is a way to share information between two computers.

Backlog – A prioritized To Do list of project deliverables typically associated with Agile.

CI/CD – Continuous Integration Continuous Delivery, are automated software delivery processes.

Cloud – An internet-based data storage or processing service using hardware not owned by you.

MFA (or TFA) – Multi Factor Authentication or Two Factor Authentication – A process to verify your identity using another step beyond ID and Password such as texting a PIN to your cell phone at login.

Pipeline – In IT this has many meanings, current usage typically refers to a project deliverable sequence.

Python – A programming language used in Rapid Application Development (RAD).

RAD – Rapid Application Development is a programming method to deliver minimal requirements that are added to or improved with each Agile sprint.

R Script (or R) – Software used to develop data statistics and graphics that make data more user friendly.

Sprint – A predefined timespan to produce project deliverables, associated with Agile.

SQL – Structured Query Language – A programming language used for data bases and reporting.

Scrum – A set of roles, tools, and meetings to ensure project delivery, typically associated with Agile.

XaaS – Everything (or Anything) as a Service – Refers to idea that any IT service (Infrastructure, Platforms, Software, Telecom) can be based in a cloud.

Applying the terms list above, a customer can translate the prior IT Speak sentence; “our API delivery methodology is Agile and begins with a story that goes on to the backlog to claim resources in the CI/CD pipeline.” The translated sentence might read like this – “To connect the computers needed in order to meet your deliverable request will require adding the request to our production list and managing it through our established development processes.” See the difference?

Your next thought might be – “Why?” Why does this happen? In the example above many of the terms come from Agile and project management which makes sense today given the focus of IT to become delivery-centric over the last decade. However, that does not address the bigger why – which is that IT people like to talk about the tools required to produce outcomes. This is understandable. Some of the tools IT people work with everyday are quite amazing and require specialized training. Moreover, IT professionals are continuous learners which means they also like to teach at every opportunity and a conversation with any non-IT person is the ideal teaching moment for them.

So how do we get past IT Speak and TLAs to begin using big words? First, to all IT people reading this I offer a few words – do not do it. If you do it today then stop, and only other IT people care about your tools. An example I offer to my team members is that you do not care about the wrench used to change the oil in your car so why would your customers care about how you will write the code or connect their computer to the Internet? If you work in IT, big words are required and learning when you use the big words might require non-IT training for business or communication skills. Both will serve you well in your career.

Second, to all IT customers, just ask. Your IT team is not trying to hide anything, they are not testing your IT knowledge, and much of the time they will not realize they have devolved into IT Speak. When you hear them slip, ask them what that word means in non-IT terms and invite them to use big words so that everyone can understand. And while you do not need to complete IT training in order to define your business need, learning common project management terms and techniques might increase the speed of your projects by decreasing the discovery time and better defining your deliverable the first time.

Third, use this post as a conversation starter. Before your next IT discovery session, email these words and others you think will be useful so that you start the session with common knowledge and identified intent to communicate with each other. IT people want to help, and they are always learning. The words above can help them learn to skip the IT Speak and use their big words so that the work they are about to do produces a positive outcome for the organization. Moreover, sharing this post opens the door to saying, let’s not talk about the wrench, let’s talk about the outcome as a gentle way of reminding everyone to use their big words.

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Dr. Mike Lewis serves as Chief Information Officer, EVP of Informatics, Security & Technology for Trillium Health Resources, a managed-care organization serving more than 350,000 members in North Carolina. He earned his Doctor of Management degree from George Fox University and is a former MBA adjunct professor at Maryhurst University. Mike has worked in the IT field for more than 25 years with stints at IBM, Merisel, and Dell.


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