Trouble with TLAs? Our Agony Aunt Advises

Dear Marjorie,

I try my best to keep up with the latest technology. I even read “IT Trends Monthly” religiously, but still become embarrassed in meetings whenever the developers namedrop some hot new technology that has passed me by, or toss out another dizzying TLA. I try to stay quiet and just nod my head wisely, but what is your advice?

Signed ‘An IT Manager’

Dear ‘IT Manager’,

First let me say that you have nothing to be ashamed of. Even the developers who speak loudly in meetings don’t know all the jargon and technologies; they just steer the debate towards familiar territory. If, for example, the only thing they know about is XML, then the whole of IT becomes a forest of XML Technologies such as XSLT, SAX, XAML or BeerXML (I was tempted to make one up, but this is real). If you know only JavaScript, then Node.js technologies tend to dominate your conversation

Managers can’t use this obvious trick so it pays to keep Wikipedia open on your mobile phone, when in meetings, and surreptitiously look up the offending TLA. However, it’s not always possible as managers generally are required to be conspicuously visible for the occasion.

Many of us try to bluff our way out of difficulty by feigning non-committal approval of the technology. Although this is a well-tried technique, it doesn’t work every time. A friend of mine recalls the ignominy of the ‘BNH incident’. His dev team were discussing whether to upgrade their NAS system to support the BNH v6 protocol. He was nodding away in what he hoped passed for a thoughtfully-intelligent manner, when he suddenly realized that it had gone quiet and all eyes were on him.

So what do you think? Should we do it?

Sweat trickled down his neck as he struggled for words. “Well, I’m all for it, if it’s going to fix the notorious latency issues with v5“. The room dissolved into uproarious laughter. He found out eventually that they had been arranging their social life using made-up TLAs. They were meeting for Beer in the Nags Head at 6pm.

A successful defensive technique is the “faulty hearing aid”. Let’s imagine, for example, that a lively debate breaks out amongst the devs about the relative merits of SAML for authentication and authorization data. You murmur approvingly at what feels like the appropriate junctures when suddenly one of the devs will turn to you and ask, “remind me again, my memory is terrible…what is SAML?”.

At this point the “faulty hearing aid” tactic comes into play. Simply reply “But surely everyone knows what XAML is by now?” If possible, give a dismissive laugh and change the subject.

Finally, here are a few other general techniques to consider, when pressed for an opinion on an unfamiliar technology:

  • ‘The tortured past’– Wince visibly, as if replaying ghastly experiences, and say, ‘look, I’m trying hard to forget the horror
  • ‘The Gartner report’ – look doubtful and say ‘surely the Gartner Technology report of 2014 cast doubt on its viability?’ You’ll be safe. No developer ever reads these reports.

Only use these if you’re sure the technology really exists. I know of one manager who used the ‘Gartner report’ ploy when his team asked his opinion on HTCPCP (RFC 2324). He still hasn’t lived it down.

The Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol (HTCPCP)

I hope that this helps, but I’m sure the readers of Simple Talk will add their suggestions, and vie for that coveted $50 Amazon gift card prize.

Signed Marjorie,
Agony Aunt for the IT industry

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