Friday, 16 May 2014

Technobabble: a powerful weapon in well-trained hands

Are there specific courses to train people in technobabble?

They’d have to have modules on obfuscation and misdirection. They would train people to use terms like entity-relationship model as though they had nothing to do with human beings’ desire for pretty, scantily-dressed fashion objects of either sex, or sprint backlog as though that didn’t concern a runner behind on his practice. Above all, they must train the would-be arch-technobabbler to use terms with enough confidence to make anyone listening think (a) that the terms mean something even though we have no idea what, and (b) that the babbler knows what they mean whether anyone else does or not.

Caution: dense technobabble ahead
Another module of the course would deal with time management. By which I don’t mean sticking to time. Oh, no. The technobabbler is a man who makes a schedule serve him, and doesn’t slavishly bow to a schedule.

He sets a deadline for delivery of, say, a new product which is so far in the future that you can’t believe he’s really serious. Eventually, he browbeats you into submission and you accept his ludicrously leisurely timetable. He then does nothing until a week before the deadline, at which point he explains why it’s inevitably going to be missed, and through no fault of his own.

“The user stories haven’t been signed off,” he’ll explain sententiously. 

You nod because you don’t want to look ignorant, although it sounds to you like a fairy story.

“You saw the Risk Register, didn’t you? It was clearly marked in there as a threat to the project.”

“The Risk Register?” you say in innocence, giving him precisely the opening he needs, to drive you into a corner and finish you off.

“Yes. The Risk Register. You obviously saw that we needed one, from the TOR.”

A three-letter-abbreviation: now that’s a real killer. A blow below the belt. How are you supposed to cope with it?

The TOR? you think. What on Earth is a TOR? Isn’t it a granite outcrop on Dartmoor? Thinking about Dartmoor Tors is a mistake, because it gets you dreaming of far more congenial places and activities. Ah, a blissful walk on the moor. A joy, in sunshine. And better than this discussion even in fog and rain.

But you drag yourself back to reality.

“Ah, yes, the TOR,” you say, “of course.”

“Which, as it happens, haven’t been signed off either.”

“Haven’t”? The TOR are plural? But again you interrupt your reverie when you catch sight of his sardonic smile. He’s just waiting for you to give him the opportunity to say “you haven’t read the TOR, have you?”

“Is that the time?” you say, “I’m supposed to be in a meeting,” and decamp.

The other time management skill these guys have is an ability to write off anything that looks like an agenda as a mere challenge. Certainly only a constraint for lesser men than they.

“You gave me thirty minutes? ME? Technobabbler-in-chief?” they seem to say, as they ignore the time allocated to them and keep talking until they judge from the audience’s comatose state that they’ve been punished enough.

The finest example I had the honour to witness was the Technobabbler who put up a slide with twenty or thirty points on it – one of the lighter ones in the set he inflicted on us – and announced “I’ve already covered most of this, but I’ll go through it again because I think it’s worth it.”

Worth it? Worth what? Worth it to pummel us into submission?

Because that’s what the technobabbler does. He turns words from mere vehicles of meaning into instruments of attack. Used to ensure the best defence. None of us knows what he’s saying, but it sounds as though we ought to. We don’t dare admit he’s talking gibberish because we’re haunted by the idea that, if we had the slightest notion of what he was on about, we might find it was something we shouldn’t admit is beyond us. So his status is inviolable. Unchallengeable, because none of us dares challenge it.

No wonder technobabblers occupy such an honoured position in industry.

Postscript: Since you ask, TOR are Terms of Reference, of course. Hence the plural.


Faith A. Colburn said...

David, this would be funny if it weren't so pervasive and so good at keeping us from accomplishing anything worthwhile. Another keen insight that might give your readers enough confidence to actually say

David Beeson said...

Thanks, Faith. I can't understand people who've reached senior positions and presumably had presentation training but still do this kind of thing...