Tuesday 17 September 2019

Wonderful world of tech jargon

Technology

Mark Hopkins, Dell Ireland general manager, talks of ‘transformation’
Mark Hopkins, Dell Ireland general manager, talks of ‘transformation’
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Who's the worst offender for tech business jargon in Ireland? Is it the multinationals, conjuring innovation at every turn? Is it startups, with their incessant 'bootstrapping'? Or public sector bodies, forever caressing stakeholders? Who leverages their disruptive ideations most?

I asked the country manager of Dell in Ireland, Mark Hopkins, about this after he told me that he was "passionate about transformation".

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It was good-humoured banter (which you can listen to on The Big Tech Show podcast).

Hopkins and his multinational colleagues are on the mild end of the scale. From ninjas with bandwidth to rock stars creating hierarchical multichannel engagement, my inbox is full of missives promising optimisation.

There are a few distinctive genres. One is designed to leave an audience wondering whether they're behind on the latest industry trend, like an email I got from S&P Global Ratings credit analyst Johannes Bender.

"We believe considerable silent cyber exposure is embedded in traditional insurance and reinsurance products," he wrote.

'Silent cyber exposure'? Sounds bad!

"If insurers do not start to screen their insurance portfolios for non-affirmative cyber exposures or manage them, losses could become significant... We think reinsurers are well-placed to harness this business potential if they can develop cyber ecosystems and improve cyber modelling, while managing accumulation risk and silent cyber exposure."

Over on the hardware side, Dell's competitor, HP, isn't launching laptops any more. It's launching something much more profound.

"HP elevates premium and personalised PC experiences to... enable more natural and intuitive experiences across work and life".

As fluffy as this is, at least it is aspirational.

Public sector bodies, on the other hand, inherit all the dull hand-me-down terms from five years ago.

On Friday, I got a press release from the Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh. It was about school buildings.

These, he said, would be "highly innovative and sustainable, future-proofed to support the most up-to-date approaches... and designed to facilitate the multi-disciplinary engagement that is so critical to tackling the challenges of today and of the future". But jargon doesn't just have to be in the actual words. In my experience, it can be a delivery method.

Last week, I attended a presentation where the executive clapped her hands and swallowed hard after every point, as if to round the issue off.

(Swallowing is a little like sips from a mug while on the phone, in that it seems designed to convey coping with capability.)

At that same presentation, another executive kept rolling her hands about in a meaningful fashion, as if the gyrating mits strengthened the truth of the case she was making.

A male executive I deal with blinks repeatedly when making a point, presumably to convey a deadly serious tone.

Another affects a minor stutter to project sincerity (or a lack of hateful arrogance).

And many jargonistas finish sentences by slowing down their last few words until arriving, like Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, at their finale. This last, drawn-out word is supposed to be thoughtful and significant. Except that word is often 'timeframe' or 'ecosystem'.

At this point, some readers may wonder: is this mean?

Is jargon a coping mechanism we should have more sympathy for? There is no question that some find comfort and relief in it.

Many years ago, I had an argument about this with a newspaper colleague. It was about the use of big words and jargonistic phrases in articles.

He argued that phrases such as 'in relation to' or 'as pertains' made an article better because you were plugging in to the language of the political and legal classes. "It just sounds more impressive," he said.

We were both in our mid-20s at the time and trying to make our mark. Many of the senior journalists in our newspaper at the time wrote in this way.

Were we the equivalent of young barristers, looking desperately at the (silly but status-indicating) horsehair wigs as some sort of leveller?

Is jargon a similar leveller? Is mocking it actually a form of intellectual snobbery?

While many of us groan and sigh at phrases such as 'bootstrap' or 'organic', for others they may be a ladder.

Is it really that bad if the inarticulate or non-academic person has recourse to a common set of terms and phrases that put him or her into the same conversation as the more expensively educated (or simply wittier) peer?

My jargon-loving colleague left the business two years after we discussed this topic. But I still wonder about how widely his view is shared.

Not all jargon is robotic management speak or made-up fluff.

There are a few superlatives that have become boilerplate bilge. 'Amazing' is one example. 'Incredible' is another.

Both these terms, I find, are the most used words relied upon by some of the most prolific spoofers in the tech and startup industry.

A few months ago, I attended a talk where the host described a startup selling computer maintenance services as 'incredible'. The computers being serviced, desktop HPs, Dells and Lenovos, are unremarkable.

The same host then went on to talk about the 'amazing' career of a 21-year-old entrepreneur who sells general items to retailers.

It's fair to say that both subjects are laudable businessmen with potential. Neither seems amazing or incredible by any common understanding of those words. But that's now the lingua franca.

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