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Writers Talk About Writing


Do you know what it means to dogfood a product? Have you ever taken part in a bug bash? Mike Pope, a technical editor at Microsoft, takes us on a tour of some of the quirky jargon that has sprung up at the software giant.

Years ago I took under my wing someone who was new to Microsoft. In her first couple of weeks, after every meeting, this woman would stop by my office to review the list of all the new terms and acronyms she'd written down. It was an eye-opener for me to see just how much jargon we used, and how unaware of it we were. But she was a diligent student and knew that mastering the jargon was going to be essential to decoding her coworkers' talk.

Every industry has its own jargon, of course. Microsoft has subcultures of programmers, managers, marketers, HR professionals, and so on, and everyone wallows in the terms of their respective disciplines. But like a lot of companies, Microsoft has a vocabulary that is (almost) all its own, which has been dubbed Microspeak.

Over the years, compendia of Microspeak have been published (such as here and here). As these collections will sometimes admit, though, they include terms that are in use at Microsoft but that didn't originate there. Anyone in the software industry will know such terms as to take offline, meaning "to talk about in private." What's more, some of the lists are seriously out of date. Or, as I maintain, they contain words that might have been used by some people at some point, but are not a part of the base lexicon of the Microsoft rank-and-file.

In this piece I'll take you through a few terms that are unquestionably in daily use at the company and universally understood. I'll also provide some attributable and some speculative etymologies.

One source of terms is software, of course, including software that is old or doesn't even exist anymore. For example, if I have a question, I might ping you.  This verb means to follow up with someone, derived from the ancient UNIX ping verb, which tests network connectivity. (You can read its history here.)  A kind of fossil term is OOF, which is a false initialism. You might be "out of [the] office," but you'll never see OOO; the informal acronym is OOF, which is a pre-Microsoft term for "out of facility." OOF can function adjectivally (an OOF message, he's OOF) or as a noun (I got an OOF from Tom.) When said out loud in this shortened form, it's pronounced just as you'd imagine.

If you want to meet with someone, you might suggest that they S+ you. As with OOF and the industry jargon little r, the verb S+ derives from old software, in this case Microsoft Schedule Plus, which one does not see in this form anywhere.  (Its functionality is now built into Outlook.)

In the realm of HR, Microsoft employs an army of full-time employees (FTEs in the standard HR jargon), which is reinforced by CSGs. The latter term derives from contingent staffing group; thus the term for the group inside Microsoft that managed contractors has become the term for contractors themselves.  At Microsoft, full-timers are also known informally as blue badges, which is a reference to the color coding on the cardkeys that people use to enter buildings. (See picture.)

The author's blue badge

CSGs have similar badges in orange or purple, depending on their exact employment status. Although the term orange-badge is understood, it does not have the same currency as blue badge. Instead, contractors are typically referred to as a-dash or v-dash employees, which comes from the employee's e-mail alias — employees who work through agencies get an a- prefix, and self-employed vendors get a v- prefix. (For example, back when I worked as a contractor through an agency, I was a-mpope@microsoft.com.)

FTEs periodically meet individually with their managers, which is referred to as a one-on-one meeting, and is frequently written 1:1. You might refer to your manager's manager as your grandmanager. Although this term is common, extensions of this — your great-grandmanager, etc. — sound more forced and are not heard often.

The primary job at Microsoft is of course software, and the daily discourse is littered with terms that are now more-or-less industry-wide jargon: alpha and beta tests, RC (release candidate), and RTM (release to manufacturing); all of these can function as an adjective (an RC version) and a noun (download the RTM). Everyone at Microsoft is periodically asked to dogfood new versions of products. This unappetizing term derives from the coined-at-Microsoft phrase "eat your own dogfood" — i.e., use your own products. In the early days of Windows, senior management understood that the best way to uncover bugs and drive development was to be your own customer.

The intricacy of tracking and resolving bugs has its own vocabulary — to triage bugs, a bug bash (an all-hands effort to find bugs), and a bug bar (criterion for accepting a bug). None of these terms are unique to Microsoft, although it's possible that the phrase by design is — as in, "We resolved that bug as by design," meaning the behavior is as expected. This phrase can function as a kind of general Q.E.D. that is both literal and allusive: "This Help center Web site sure is frustrating!" "Hey, by design, dude!"

What jargon is endemic to your company or organization? Let us know in the comments below!

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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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 5th 2009, 9:08 AM
Comment by: cepowell (DALLAS, TX)
The first to come to mind is "bit bucket." Misplaced or discarded digital data has "gone to the bit bucket."
Thursday November 5th 2009, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Martha M.
This isn't unique to the law firm at which I work, but I've never seen it outside the legal industry: the use of "timely" as an adverb instead of an adjective ("Plan administrators who timely provide the safe harbor notices will be deemed to have satisfied the requirement").

Lawyers stare at me blankly when I explain that despite the -ly ending, "timely" isn't an adverb like "quickly" or "smoothly"; it's an adjective like "lovely."

Maybe, in these days of "eat fresh" and "live strong," the distinction between the two parts of speech has lost all meaning. Like verbed nouns, are adverbed adjectives something we all simply have to get used to? Seeing "timely" being abused that way makes my head want to explode.
Thursday November 5th 2009, 12:46 PM
Comment by: langgang (Houston, TX)
You could add the term, "feature", for a bug that probably won't get fixed - as in, "That's not a bug, it's a feature."
Thursday November 5th 2009, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
I am a native-US-English-speaking technical writer/editor who works for an India-based IT services company. Some of our internal groups seem to make up textual shorthand as they go, resulting in acronyms that may not be what they appear to be - such as OMG for the Operations Management Group.

Most of the people I work with are not native US English speakers, and although they do speak English moderately well, it is a constant problem to edit out the non-standard English that continuously shows up in company communications. Here is a recent example: "Starting very earnest the team has shown the way to success and it is a pride for the team to achieve this feat."

I sometimes wonder, when many native speakers of US English are so careless (even when they write), how my non-native-speaking co-workers are supposed to learn?
Thursday November 5th 2009, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Ann L.
One of my favorite bits of jargon, although I did my best to put a stake through its heart, had to do with the term "capitation", which means, in the health care industry, charging a flat fee for services "by the head". The alternative is to charge for the actual services, which vary with the individual. When you switched from the first billing system to the second, you, of course,... wait for it... "decapitated".

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