The now-infamous New York Times article on working conditions at Amazon has generated a lot of publicity, along with opinions pro and con, but it caused me to think about the kind of terms that are generated by industries. These words and expressions go into common usage and are well understood within the industry but may come as a surprise to anyone who does not marinate in that special sauce.
The recent article by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld: “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” is a good example. The authors introduced some technology slang that I had not heard before and the phrases jumped out at me. On the other hand, I thought that they reacted negatively to a few terms that are in common usage and ascribed them only to Amazon.
The technology industry may have more slang terms than other industries simply because so many words for hardware, software, networking and security have been invented along with the products. Also, some developers and engineers are perhaps less social than other folk and tend to talk more among themselves—thus proliferating the slang terms. We don’t even think about these expressions until we accidentally sprinkle one into conversation with a non-techie and obseve a look of puzzlement at best and horror at worst on the listener’s face.
Bandwidth and Brain Dumps
I remember years ago hearing a co-worker explain that she “didn’t have enough bandwidth” on her credit card to cover the item she wanted to buy. While the technical definition of bandwidth involves the difference between two frequencies or the capacity of a communications channel, what she was really saying was that her card didn’t have a credit limit high enough to cover the charge. I thought it described the situation perfectly.
On the other hand, I was once talking to a friend and used the term “brain dump” in the conversation. To me it meant communicating everything I knew about a topic in one fell swoop but I could tell from the look of disgust on her face that she had no idea what I was talking about.
How much more disgusted she would have been to overhear a discussion that used expression such as “drinking the Kool-Aid” and “eating your own children.”
The first one means that an employee has swallowed the company’s culture and mission statement completely and believes in its market superiority without question. It comes, of course, from the horrific Jonestown, Guyana, massacre of more than 900 followers of Jim Jones who drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide because their sociopathic prophet told them to do so.
The second term, also known as “cannibalizing the product line” means that the company plans to introduce a new product that will eat into the profits from existing products and possibly make them obsolete.
On the other hand, “eating your own dog food” simply means that the company is either using or testing its own products. This one sounds more benign, if equally disgusting, but a Ford CEO who drives a Mercedes is not eating his own dog food.
The Neutral Zone
Then there are more neutral terms like “biobreak.” This acknowledges the need of human beings to occasionally leave the meeting and visit the lavatory in a way that computers do not. Computers are, of course, not biological entities and so they have no need to eat or excrete. This is a topic I dealt with at more length in two previous posts: “Multitasking Humans and Work/Life Balance” and “Are We People or Machines?”
“Big pipes” has nothing to do with the consequences of a biobreak. Instead it means a high-bandwidth internet connection that allows for an enormous flow of information. In one episode of The X Files, Mulder and Scully solved the case by following a T-1 line to a chicken farm in Herndon, VA. This connection raised the team’s suspicions because a chicken farm would have no use for such a huge pipe.
People in the tech world often engage in “multitasking” which means working on more than one task at the same time. Computers excel at this but people not so much. We may attempt it by “keeping a lot of plates spinning” but the human brain really only focuses on one task at a time so sometimes things drop.
If I think that’s likely to happen, I may “ping you on that.” I’ll check in with you or try to get your attention. Pinging refers to the method in which an internet program determines whether a specific IP address is accessible online. It sends a packet—or ping—to that address and waits for a reply, much in the way sonar sends a sound pulse and listens for the echo.
To keep track of all the things you are multitasking on, you might create a “dead tree version” or a hardcopy of a document or file. The term refers to the fact that it’s printed on paper, which is made from tree pulp,
If a new product starts right up, we say it can “plug and play.” That means you can plug it in and it works out of the box. Or, if it’s a software add-on, it identifies itself right away. If that doesn’t happen, the product could turn into “shelfware” – a product that is so difficult to use or defective that it never comes out of the box. Instead it sits, still shrink-wrapped, on the shelf.
The slang terms in the New York Times article on Amazon seem to be specific to the company although some may be in more general usage. I have been out of the industry for a while so I’m not up to date on current slang and usage in Silicon Valley may be different from that on the East Coast. So, in alphabetical order, here are the slang terms that @jodikantor and @DavidStreitfeld included in the story:
Amabot: A good Amazon employee; presumably one who had drunk the company Kool-Aid.
- Amholes: Ex-Amazon workers who have been trained to be pugnacious and obsessed with work and who might not fit well into other cultures.
- Bar Raiser: Someone charged with ensuring that only the best people are hired to work at Amazon. Presumably these are the people most likely to become Amabots.
- Burn and Churn: Working employees so hard that they burn out and leave or get fired.
- Cold Pricklies: Email notifications that inform customers their product won’t arrive on time.
- Customer Obsession: Relentlessly striving to please customers.
- Manage Out: Executing purposeful Darwinism by firing people whose performance doesn’t measure up to expectations.
- Purposeful Darwinism: Regularly culling people who can’t keep up with the pace or match the company’s expectations.
- Rank and Yank: Openly debating and rating a manager’s direct reports and identifying the ones who need to be managed out.
- Vocally Self-Critical: Being willing to castigate yourself for shortcomings either real or imagined.
Some of them—indeed, some of the practices described in the article—sound almost cultlike to me. Vocally Self-critical? Really? Whether the company does foster that kind of uncritical dedication is a topic currently under discussion. But if you’re at a cocktail party and someone drops one of these terms in the conversation, at least you‘ll know what it means.