Microsoft's Regular Expressions

Programming communities and corporate culture naturally encourages the development of peculiar nomenclatures and in-the-know jargon. As a demonstration, here's several expressions and terms used only — or primarily — by people who work at Microsoft... and not used, really, by anybody else.

I've given more thought to my blog post from last week about the architecture of programming communities. Although that post emitted a warning, I don't want to give the impression that it's a Bad Thing for people to create workable teams. I just want to highlight the ways in which the walls we build to help ourselves can sometimes block others out.

When people work together regularly, they naturally create shortcut expressions based on common experiences — and not just in programming. When I worked for a compiler optimization company, my boss and most of my dozen coworkers were also fans of Arlo Guthrie's ballad, Alice's Restaurant. It was a function of our hippie background and the high per-capita Folk Musician population of Deer Isle Maine, I guess, but certainly we all knew most of the lyrics.

I'm not sure who started it, but as a conversational shortcut in meetings, company employees summarized, "I explained to the user all of the details that we have discussed at great length before, including bla-bla-bla..." (you know how those explanations can drone on) as, "I showed her the 27 8x10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, to be used as evidence against us." Which itself was soon shortened to "circles and arrows." Thus, to this day, I'm apt to say (to those who'll understand, including that old boss who continues to be a friend), "When the client asked why his site had crashed, I gave him circles and arrows." When someone outside the circle (heh) understands that expression without me explaining it, I feel as though I've found a friend.

I've come to refer to these as "married-people macros;" I'm sure you and your spouse have a few of your own. But in our professional lives, it's those shortcut expressions that help us create communities with in-the-know jargon... and maybe (to a small but usually harmless degree) exclude those who aren't sure what the specialized term means.

And sometimes it's just a mark of corporate culture.

For example, Microsoft folks use "rich" more often than anybody else I've seen, from "a rich user interface" to "rich text format." I don't think I've seen a single Microsoft press release or tech presentation that missed out on the opportunity to use the rich term even when it adds no actual meaning. In fact, I've sometimes amused myself by substituting "high-cholesterol" or "with extra butter" while reading their press releases.

Some terms, I suspect, were either generated first at Microsoft or were made popular within the company... and then escaped. One of these may be the term "decks" for a collection of PowerPoint slides. I'm sure that I heard it first from Microsoft people, but now the expression has escaped into the wild. (I wish it'd escape back, but I do admit that presentations no longer uses actual overhead projectors. On the other hand, someone referring to a "deck" in a painful PowerPoint presentation suggests to me, "I could deck him..." which is a dangerous temptation I'd like to avoid.)

However, there are also some Microsoft terms are that linguistic curiosities. While nobody seems to imagine that Microsoft was the first to use the expression "eat our own dogfood" (i.e. use and rely on the technology we develop), as far as I know Microsofties (by which I mean company employees and those closely allied with them, such as business partners and MVPs) are the only ones I've encountered who use "dogfooding" as a verb. Similarly, others might use the expression "go down a rathole" (that is, "to digress in an extensive way") but, I am told, people at Microsoft use "rathole" as a verb.

In fact, one Microsoft employee confided, the Microsofties "verb" almost everything. There's also lots of words for shipping software, as you can imagine, many of which are verbed. For instance, I'm told, there's a large meeting towards the end of a product's release called "shiproom." "So we'll say something like 'Take this to shiproom and tell them we're not the long pole any more,'" my friend explained. "Long pole, by the way, is the team, group, or feature that will take the longest." Me, I thought it was what you were up the creek without. Or "on the critical path," in old-style project management lingo.

These are only a smidgen of Microsoft terms. One kind soul pointed me at The Microsoft Lexicon, in case you want to put together your own trivia quiz.

I confess that I'm intrigued by this behavior largely because I love language and how it intersects with community. (How else could I use my most-of-a-Linguistics degree?) So I find it fascinating to watch how groups share knowledge, invent expressions, and then summarize them... not the least of which is a tendency to "verb the nouns" (even if specific examples irritate me) and to turn expressions into community macros. There's a master's thesis in this for someone, I betcha.

Last week, I pointed out that communities rarely take the time to gaze into their own navels to observe the effect of their behavior. I picked on Microsoft here, but not because there's anything specific to the company. I think most companies have their own expressions, and most programming communities develop their own jargon. What are some that you've encountered, in your own organizations?

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