5 Strategies for Understanding Tech Jargon
Don't let jargon fuel your imposter syndrome! The people saying things you don't understand probably have no idea what they're saying either.
Jargon: special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.
It can be intimidating in a professional setting when you feel like you're expected to have some amount of relevant knowledge, then all of a sudden people start throwing around words you've never heard before.
It's not great for business or productivity. It leads to misunderstanding, communication breakdowns, and can create rifts between team members who feel like they don't know how to contribute.
More importantly it's not great for mental health. It fuels imposter syndrome and a sense of inadequacy.
Imposter Syndrome: doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud
I've had a lot of education on programming and technology, but I don't come from a strictly academic, computer science background. I'm not sure if that's relevant here, but I tend to assume that people who do have a deep, innate understanding of technical jargon. (Hey but if that's not the case, please let me know so we can commiserate!)
English is my first language, and I often find myself confused by the jargon used throughout the technology industry 🤔 I can't even begin to imagine how much harder it must be for people who learned english as a foreign language.
Take the following sentence for example:
We were bootstrapping a greenfield app when we discovered cross-cutting concerns exhibiting non-orthogonal behavior. - Overheard San Francisco
Sorry, say what now 🤯 Bootstrapping? Greenfield? Cross-cutting concerns? Orthogonal?
In all seriousness, at one point or another in the last 5 years I had no idea what these words meant. While writing this article, in fact, I discovered that I had the entirely wrong understanding of what "orthogonal" meant. Also I've been spelling it wrong 🤦🏻♂️
What are the best ways to go about learning jargon?
TL;DR - it all comes down to being proactive, and you're going to have to do a little work to figure out what it means. Most people don't (though they should) realize when they're using jargon, so they won't define it or add additional meaning.
The 5 Strategies for Understanding Jargon are:
There is nuance to all of these, so read on to find out how these strategies help make sense of this nonsense, and see how we end up translating this ridiculous sentence.
1) Ask the Speaker
This might be the most obvious, but it's also the most intimidating. Depending on a number of factors including time, place, and power dynamics it might not even be an option.
In an all-company meeting with the CTO? Meeting with a toxic manager or co-worker? It might not be the best place to ask.
If, however, you're in a situation and with people that feels safe enough you should speak up and ask! You might be surprised how often other people will have the the same questions you do, and the kind of shared shared learning that results from this is a great way to build rapport with others!
Rapport: a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other's feelings or ideas and communicate well.
2) Ask a friend
Hate networking? Yah, me too 😱 but a huge benefit of networking is having people you like and trust within your industry that you can reach out to and ask questions. Not just for job opportunities, which is all a lot of people talk about, but more importantly for sharing ideas, stories, and knowledge!
An extra benefit of this? You can develop a BS reading on whoever it was talking all this jargon...
BS: an abbreviation for bulls**t. [mainly US, informal, vulgar, disapproval]
Bulls**t: stupid or untrue talk or writing; nonsense.
The more people you reach out to who have no idea what it means, the more likely that this person is full of BS.
Support the artist! You can buy this cute BS sticker here! US only, sorry 😔 (Not an affiliate link, I just like it)
3) Google it
This may sound like another obvious one, but when it comes to jargon it's not always straight forward. You might get a number of definitions that aren't relevant to the context where word was used.
Sometimes you might get it right away, sometimes you'll have to dig. Sometimes you might also get a definition that's so abstract it doesn't help at all with understanding.
Let's try an example:
- a situation in which an entrepreneur starts a company with little capital, relying on money other than outside investments
- any test or metric that uses random sampling with replacement, and falls under the broader class of resampling methods
- the technique for producing a self-compiling compiler
Option #1 might be right 🤷🏻♂️ but Google has a wild variety of definitions for "bootstrapping"
Let's see if we can get closer!
4) Add Additional Context
When Google gets confusing, add additional context to your queries. For all four of these words, try a google search prefixed with "software development" and you'll get definitions that are closer to the intent of the original sentence.
With a little extra Googling, here are the approximate definitions I'm using to figure out what our jargon means.
Bootstrapping: the process of getting a software development project moving from a standing start - TechRepublic
Greenfield: developing a system for a totally new environment and requires development from a clean slate – no legacy code around - Synoptek
Orthogonal: changing one [...] component changes the state of that component only - freeCodeCamp
Non-orthogonal: changing one [...] component changes the state of external, or unintended components
5) Break Down Terms
Understanding the different parts of a phrase can help understand the whole. For a long time I thought "cross-cutting concerns" were something bad, because they were concerning but that's not the case...I just never dug into the definition to get a solid understanding.
Concern: parts of a program - StackOverflow
Cross-cutting: affect[ing] many other parts of the system - Wikipedia
Cross-cutting Concerns: parts of a program that affect many other parts of the system. - Wikipedia
Logging and Authentication are often cited as examples of "cross-cutting concerns" since they tend to affect and be required in many parts of a system!
Remember our original sentence?
We were bootstrapping a greenfield app when we discovered cross-cutting concerns exhibiting non-orthogonal behavior.
Using the definitions we found, if I were going to use this sentence in a business setting, here's how I would write it out:
We were [just starting up work] (bootstrapping) on our [brand new from-scratch] (greenfield) app when we discovered that [some functionality we use across all our services] (cross-cutting concerns) was [creating unintended side-effects] (non-orthogonal). - Ben
I asked my friend Bree to translate the sentence off the top of her head, and this is pretty spot on to what I'd say if I were talking casually with someone:
We tried to make it from scratch and found unexpected dependencies that fu**ed it up. - Bree
It's Not You, It's Them
Jargon not only varies by industry, it also varies from company to company and even from team to team! Don't get frustrated if you continue to encounter words and terminology you're not familiar with, language is a constantly evolving beast.
If you're struggling, try starting a running list of jargon you're not familiar so you can come back to it, or refer back to the definitions you've found.
Putting these skills into practice will go a long way towards helping you find clarity when you're talking with someone who suddenly seems to be speaking gibberish.
Gibberish: unintelligible or meaningless speech or writing; nonsense.
What's Your (Least) Favorite Jargon?
❓Do you have a favorite (or least favorite) piece of jargon❓
Let me know on twitter @BenjaminWFox, and better yet I'll try to define it off the top of my head!