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Heavy Lifting and Shaving Yaks: Corporate Lingo

Anyone who works for a large organization (or maybe even a small one) knows that certain phrases grab people's imagination and spread through the organization. If you're like me, you go to meetings and presentations and expressions keep popping up, which is very distracting — you try to listen to what the speaker is saying, but you end up paying more attention to how they're saying it.

Recently I noticed that I was hearing certain terms a lot, so I started recording them. Of course, this is nothing new; the idea of buzzword bingo is well established, and there has plenty written about the jargon of business.

Still, let me offer you an inventory of expressions I've heard recently where I work. (Amazon.) My subsequent investigations indicate that the terms are not by any means unique to my company. But perhaps, as with me, you'll find them new and interesting. And some of them, I promise, are actually kind of funny.

Dogs not barking. A dogs-not-barking problem is one that, according to a definition I found on our corporate wiki, is a "lurking problem that doesn't demand immediate attention, but could flare up if it doesn't get attention soon." In the world of (our) corporate lingo, keeping an eye on your dogs-not-barking problems seems to be the complement to simply putting out fires.

Move the needle. Simply put, to have an impact. The blogger Giovanni Rodriguez makes a case that the needle in this expression refers to a seismograph, where a moving needle means that the earth is shaking. As I hear the expression at work, it's used generically: "This improvement will help us move the needle on the product."

Table stakes. This comes from gambling, where it refers to the amount it takes to get into the game. In the business context where I hear it frequently, building table stakes means to create minimal viable functionality for a new product, without which you might as well not release the product. (An analogy that I was given is that you can't try to sell a new car that doesn't have wheels and an engine.) A few of my colleagues were incredulous that I didn't know this term. I blame my lack of poker experience.

Keep the lights on. Keep-the-lights-on work refers to the work that's necessary to keep a business running, but that isn't bringing in revenue. Example cite: "More than half your time and resources are spent, not on innovative projects, but on 'keep the lights on' activities." This expression has come up a lot in "roadmap" meetings, where we plan future work, and during which have to allocate a certain quantity of resources for keeping the lights on.

Bottom out. This one was reported to me by a fellow writer, with this example: "Let me contact [person]; I'd like to bottom out on that issue." The best we can come up with is that bottom out is a kind of a combination of "get to the bottom of" and "close out."

Undifferentiated heavy lifting. There are a couple of managers in my group who are in love with this phrase, and I've seen it creep (unsuccessfully on my watch) into announcements and press releases. As near as we can tell, we got this term from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who used it this way:

… things that I'm talking about when I say undifferentiated heavy lifting are things like these: figuring out which servers to buy, how many of them to buy, what time line to buy them.

The "heavy lifting" part therefore refers to building out the computer infrastructure for your company, with a connotation that this is difficult and expensive. What about "undifferentiated"? Here's Bezos again: "… they are undifferentiated from, it's not the heart of, your idea." (To my ear, this sounds like it's differentiated from your core work, not undifferentiated from it, but who am I to contradict the chairman?) The term has started to get traction in the world of cloud computing — not surprisingly, mostly in the world of Amazon cloud computing, including a mention in Forbes magazine.

Yak shaving. This is an expression that tends to be a hit wherever it's introduced, since everyone can relate to it. Yak shaving refers to an annoying succession of tasks you need to accomplish in order to get to your actual goal. This was brilliantly illustrated by the opening sequence from an episode of the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle" (season 3,  episode 6):

According to one site, the term was invented at MIT by Carlin Vieri; the Jargon File suggests that it in turn derives from "Yak Shaving Day" in the cartoon Ren and Stimpy. (As near as I can tell, it was Microsoft employee Scott Hanselman who first associated the "Malcolm" video with this term.)

I don't usually share with some critics of business-speak a dismissive attitude toward what I hear from my fellow corporate denizens. On the contrary, I find all of it interesting and some of it downright clever. That doesn't mean I think the terms I hear necessarily need to go beyond the corporate walls and be introduced into "customer-facing" writing (as we say). But I think that these expressions perform one of the tasks for which jargon is useful, namely to efficiently convey information to insiders. The fact that some of these terms are amusing is just a bonus.

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Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at Microsoft and Amazon, and currently works at Tableau Software. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.