You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Inigo Montoya

Inigo Montoya

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up.]
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Princess Bride

We keep using these words, but they don’t seem to have any meaning anymore.

Agile. It started with agile software, and seems to have spread like a virus to (agile) testing, (agile) architecture etc. At some stage we confused two ideas: agile delivery and agile outcome. One does not imply the other; while your process might be agile, being able to redeploy the team quickly does not guarantee an agile result for the business. You can make your architecture/development/testing team as agile as you like, but if the solution they are working on is a giant furball, then business agility will elude you. And by getting this wrong in the eyes of the business, we’ve made the term next to meaningless.

Architect(ure). Back when I was a lad, every geek wanted to be a grow up to be a systems analyst. None of us really knew what a system analyst did, but the title sounded good, they seemed to be senior and the pay was ok. Some time in the last few years, architect (and architecture) have replaced system analyst in the minds of aspiring software engineers. The minute we reach something like team lead we start calling ourselves “architect”. This puts software engineering in the strange position of having a surplus of architects, but very little real architecture.

Chief Technology Officer. Full disclosure, I carry the CTO title. I prefer to use the acronym rather than spell it out–to avoid confusion. With technology playing an increasingly important role in business, using technology well (or not) can have a disproportionate impact on a company’s performance. The idea behind a CTO is a good one: someone to advise how to leverage technology at a senior level. Though most CTO roles seem to be something else: head of development (nee VP Engineering) product management (Dir. Product Management), or just “big solution architect”. Using one title in so many different ways means that the title has little meaning to the business. I prefer to use the acronym, focus on helping the business solve problems, and let them make up their own mind on what it means.

Innovation. We have big innovations, and small. Industry defining disruptive innovations, and incremental innovation. There’s whole ontologies of innovation. We’re told to innovate our way out of recessions, and to innovate to remain competitive in bull markets. There’s a surplus of innovation activities, yet very little seems to happen. All this thunder without rain makes me yearn for more obliquity. Innovation should imply doing something useful, making a difference, rather than being reduced to a label for an ever growing consulting industry and a lot of talk.

Mash-up. From that first push-pins on a map solution, fusing data from a range of sources (GIS, reviews, yellow pages …), the mash-up concept seems to be growing to include an UI concept that we want to generate buzz around. iGoogle and NetVibes as mash-ups? Aren’t these just a SaaS version of the portals of old?

Synergy. Many things in the business world are done to release “synergies”. Mergers and acquisitions are driven by the quest for synergies. PowerPoint business plans are often considered incomplete unless they line up A and B, proudly announcing that synergies will make it all worthwhile. Why then, do promised synergies so rarely eventuate? We seem to use the term as a vague aspirational statement, rather than a call to action.

More terms as I find time. Send in your own and I’ll add them to the list.

Update: The Economist points out where synergy went wrong.

Update: Added “mash-up” after commenting on Enterprise Mash-Ups in Transition.

Update: You can find my attempt at a clearer and more consistent definition of mash-up over at We need a better definition for “mash-up”.

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14 comments

  • Chris Bird on 2009/11/11 at 7:25 am said:

    Elegantly put. Grandiloquence rules. Not that these are in our field, but I am amazed how in the great state of Texas (where everything is bigger!), something that I would think of as being a hill is called a mountain. A small stone is a rock… The list goes on.

    Just as we have grade inflation in our schools, we have word inflation in our efforts to seem more important, get more rewards (financial, prestige or otherwise).

    On my own blog I have a couple of relevant (perhaps) postings. First this one http://businessanditarchitecture.blogspot.com/2

    and then this one
    http://businessanditarchitecture.blogspot.com/2

    Chris

  • Peter Evans-Greenwood on 2009/11/11 at 6:26 pm said:

    “Orwell's Razor” I like that. Then I've been a huge fan of his writing for years.

    I'll add “reification” and “holism” when I get a spare moment.

    r.

    PEG

  • Peter Evans-Greenwood on 2009/11/12 at 7:00 pm said:

    I expect, as you point out, this kind of devaluing of key words/phrases is as old as Texas. It's probably on of those foundations of language, like the migration of nouns to verbs (e.g. to Google). Still…

  • Martijn Linssen on 2009/11/13 at 7:42 pm said:

    This post makes me smile, laugh, and cry a little bit at the same time ;-)

    I remember my first month of working for my first IT company, and staring at the bulletin board. I was actually quite mift at the manager putting up that very note as I thought he should know very well that more than 3 abbreviations per sentence was impolite to say the least

    We just take too little mind (sic) to understand what people mean when they say something, thus we live by assumptions
    If I had a time machine and a cloning one at the same time (…), I'd summon Socrates and unleash him unto the world. Seems like fun, and about time (sorry for that)

  • Martijn Linssen on 2009/11/13 at 8:28 pm said:

    Well, he was, actually, just not by ye olde authorities. http://twitter.com/Martin_V came across my path (or vice versa) just very recently, he has a splendid Brit way with words, reminds me of Socrates

    http://www.cio.co.uk/opinion/veitch/2009/11/13/… is a good start. Along the line of British custom there's just dart-like 180's all over the place without even daring to think of a solution (solution equals Guinness didn't it, or was it the other way around?)

    Honestly, the problem is not about debunking the “nobility titles and persons” in IT, it's about preventing the competition from taking advantage of that after we did so. We (they! LOL) all love to shallow in vanity

    One cure though: you'd think twice if it were your own purse…
    Of course that's why governments are a programmer's paradise, an architect's wet dream, are filled with 'innovation' that's even more 'agile' than Mr. Agility himself, and the result is -read my lips- NOW NEW taxes

    Commitment is key. So is knowledge. Territory marks it all. Yours, and “the Others”. Quoting Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar: “Could we start again, please?”

  • Martijn Linssen on 2009/11/14 at 12:42 am said:

    This post makes me smile, laugh, and cry a little bit at the same time ;-)

    I remember my first month of working for my first IT company, and staring at the bulletin board. I was actually quite mift at the manager putting up that very note as I thought he should know very well that more than 3 abbreviations per sentence was impolite to say the least

    We just take too little mind (sic) to understand what people mean when they say something, thus we live by assumptions
    If I had a time machine and a cloning one at the same time (…), I'd summon Socrates and unleash him unto the world. Seems like fun, and about time (sorry for that)

  • Martijn Linssen on 2009/11/14 at 1:28 am said:

    Well, he was, actually, just not by ye olde authorities. http://twitter.com/Martin_V came across my path (or vice versa) just very recently, he has a splendid Brit way with words, reminds me of Socrates

    http://www.cio.co.uk/opinion/veitch/2009/11/13/… is a good start. Along the line of British custom there's just dart-like 180's all over the place without even daring to think of a solution (solution equals Guinness didn't it, or was it the other way around?)

    Honestly, the problem is not about debunking the “nobility titles and persons” in IT, it's about preventing the competition from taking advantage of that after we did so. We (they! LOL) all love to shallow in vanity

    One cure though: you'd think twice if it were your own purse…
    Of course that's why governments are a programmer's paradise, an architect's wet dream, are filled with 'innovation' that's even more 'agile' than Mr. Agility himself, and the result is -read my lips- NOW NEW taxes

    Commitment is key. So is knowledge. Territory marks it all. Yours, and “the Others”. Quoting Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar: “Could we start again, please?”

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