Every office has a couple of phrases that get used, and overused, to sum up or simply express complex concepts. These sayings become so seeped in meaning that by simply uttering the phrase, an entire host of meaning, context, and understanding is imparted to the audience. Very similar to an acronym, these pithy sayings reduce a lengthy structure to a meaningful, and simpler, form.
Outside of military acronyms I was exposed to at Hooah, I have never worked at a place with more contextual phrases than here at myList. New employees are often caught completely flat-footed when these phrases are bandied about in meetings. They are lost as to the relevance of the saying while the rest of the room nods their heads sagely in understanding. I wanted to take a few moments to introduce you to some of the most prevalent phrases here at myList. Some of them you might recognize - others will probably baffle you.
Motherhood and Apple Pie
This phrase is used most often by the company’s CTO, Rob, when he’s discussing the vision and scope of our services and applications.
Used to express the perfect, ideal, often unachievable, state of things. Things are “motherhood and apple pie” when Nirvana is reached, when all things work exactly as planned, or when serendipitous events transpire favorably. A perfect example might be: “Every user of our application will love the interface and will tell their friends and we’ll dominate the space if it’s all motherhood and apple pie.”
If it’s all motherhood and apple pie, this blog will go viral and I’ll get picked up by a major aggregator.
Falling on your Sword
This is a phrase most of us recognize. The meaning is as unpleasant as it sounds, but it does have a noble connotation to is as well. You fall on your sword when you publicly accept responsibility for a failure. It’s used in meetings quite often in a context like this, “The deployment failed. I’ll fall on my sword; it probably would have gone better had I documented the steps more clearly.”
There is, as I stated above, a noble context to it as well. A leader often falls on his sword to sacrifice himself so his team does not suffer ill consequences. Success, as they say, has many fathers – but failure is an orphan. An example of a leader falling on his sword to protect his team might be something like this: ”When the project failed and reviews were right around the corner, Bob fell on his sword for the team.”
Whistle by the Graveyard
This is one of my favorite phrases. It’s so completely appropriate for the context in which it is used. This phrase is used when you are agreeing to intentionally ignore a potential issue that might come back to haunt you later. Just as in real life, walking past a graveyard makes people nervous because of sometimes real and sometimes irrational fears of death, whistling past the graveyard in a business context means something scary is being ignored in the hopes it won’t affect you.
You’ll hear it all the time in a context like this, “Error logging isn’t perfect, but we’re going to whistle past the graveyard on this for now.” The verbose translation of this is, “We realize the code doesn’t log the error correctly, but we’re betting there won’t be that many errors and we can address it later. I sure hope this decision doesn’t come back to bite me. ”
Pigs and Chickens
This is my new favorite by far. The full saying is that “Chickens are involved in breakfast, but pigs are committed.” We adopted this when we started using Scrum as our software development methodology. What this means is that a chicken is involved, but not critically, in creating breakfast. It lays an egg and moves on. A pig, on the other hand, is completely committed, because his life is on the line to provide breakfast.
What happens at myList, in meetings, is that we have attendees who have an opinion but are not really “committed” to the project in scope of the others in the meeting. They are the chickens. The attendees who are on the line in the meeting are the pigs. For instance, in a development meeting on technology choices, I am a chicken. As Program Manager I have an opinion, but since my job is not to deliver the code (just the result), manage the code, or architect the solution, I am not as committed as the developers on the hook for sound code choices. They are the pigs.
You might be a chicken in one meeting and a pig in another, based on the context of the meeting. It’s completely normal to hear in a meeting, “OK, now that the chickens have left, we can make the decisions we need to make.” or, “Since we’re the pigs here, we really need to focus on the deliverable.”
A favorite of our CEO, buckaroo has its roots in the 1984 movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. There is a quote from the movie that drives the entire concept of buckaroo:
“…remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”
This has been interpreted to mean that it must work the same for everyone, no matter what, in every circumstance. The classic example our CEO uses, based off of his days at Microsoft, is that buckaroo was broken when Microsoft expected business users to use MS Word and home users to use MS Works. Why would a user who uses Word at work want to use anything different at home?
So, in our design meetings it is extremely common to hear, “We have to honor buckaroo – if it works for user class A it has to behave exactly same for user class B.”
I Don’t have a Dog in that Fight
A timeless classic at myList that is a favorite of our CTO. This is meant to say that you don’t have a vested interest or opinion on the matter at hand – but you’re going to go ahead and comment anyway. It qualifies your position as being either an impartial observer, not an expert, or not really caring either way. It’s pretty common to hear it in meetings with many roles present.
When you have developers, program managers, product managers, designers, business analysts, and executive management in the same meeting – people like to preface what they say with the position they are trying to take. You might hear something like, “I don’t have a dog in that fight. I don’t care what servers you pick, as long as they stay up 100% of the time.” It means, I am not taking any responsibility for your choice of servers, and I am letting you know that no matter what you pick, they have to meet my uptime requirements.”
I’m just reporting the news
This is one of the most used phrases here. Essentially it says you are a reporter, reporting the news with no bias or opinion. It’s often used to express an honest “state of the union” of an uncomfortable or unfavorable project. A person who reports the news is saying they are not trying to color the facts, sugar coat the situation, or misrepresent anything. The assumption is that a reporter is not trying to steer a decision or opinion one way or another. A reporter is not casting judgment, and is begging you to have an objective and not have an emotional response to what he is saying.
You might hear, walking down the hallway, “The deployment process doesn’t account for downtime more than 15 minutes and as a result our last four deployments have failed. I’m just reporting the news.”
It sometimes seems to me that it’s can be use for evil – to express and opinion and at the same time distance yourself from that opinion, but it is rarely done. ”Damn you’re ugly. I’m just reporting the news.”
Punt on That
Another oft-used phrase at myList that has such ubiquitous adoption we aren’t sure where it originated. Like a punt in football, used in this context it means we aren’t trying to score a touchdown. We’ll be content with a little victory or with not driving towards the goal – for now. It’s used to let everyone know that you’re not ignoring something – you’re just not dealing with it at this time. A punt only gets you a few points but, used correctly, can help you win the game. It is a strategic decision that a greater scoring opportunity will present itself as long as you don’t focus on a short-term victory right now. ”I know the product needs to be dressed properly, but we’re going to punt on that for now and focus on the path TO the product first.”
Hang an Elephant By a Daisy Off Its Tail over a Cliff
This one is really, really esoteric. And it’s lengthy – so it isn’t used often, but I had to throw in here for the novelty effect it has. It’s a colorful way of saying, “that isn’t possible.” It stems from the 1991 movie JFK where Kevin Costner claims that science can prove that it’s possible to hang an elephant over a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy. It’s used usually in reference to inflated promises of vaporware from vendors or in reference to grand plans that can never, ever, come to fruition. ”The vendor said the product can log inside our network And then he hung an elephant by a daisy off it’s tail.”
So that’s the short list. We have a lot more colorful phrases and saying we use here, but this is what I compiled in a quick minute. I encourage my friends, readers, and co-workers to comment and add the ones that I missed!