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Preserving Subcultural Language

Published 11/16/2019

Vocabulary is the basis of language and unique cultural meaning. Developers share a common code and have created their own vocabulary and language over time.

In today's episode, we're talking about how sub-cultural language is established at a company level and how that language development can either help or hurt a new employee's experience.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
It would be a major understatement to say that language and the transfer of language from one person to another in whatever form, maybe media like this podcast or writing is perhaps one of the most important innovations of our species. And most scientists or sociologists, whatever the professionals are in these fields, they would say that the transfer of language or the ability to take a message, a common message from one person to the next is kind of the basis of culture, the ability to transfer knowledge that is wrapped up in that language. That is how we continue to build on the shoulders of giants. And this is how computing even came to be. So it makes sense that we take some time to talk and think a little bit more about how language applies in our jobs. In today's episode, we're going to talk about language. And specifically, we're going to talk about your company's subcultural language. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea and my goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective and purpose in your careers. And language is where we find clarity. Of course, we can find emotional clarity and we can even feel clarity at a physical level. We can sense it as a combination of many factors. At the end of the day, 95% of the time, or maybe more, the way that we find clarity is through our language. And when we're talking about companies, companies tend to have their own languages. Now, we're not talking about programming languages and we're not talking about actual primary languages like you might talk about English. Instead, we're talking about vocabulary overloading the common words that we might have in our English vocabulary with new or continued meaning. And it's not just companies that have this, pretty much any group, any significant group that has spent time together and developed a linguistic kind of communication style, you're going to have words that they imbue with new meaning. Now sometimes this is on grander scales like you might have entire regions of the nation that adopt a particular slang, for example. But for the sake of today's episode, I want to talk about how this forms within a company. And perhaps more importantly, how your company's subcultural language is both hurting and helping the people who are at the company. If you've been at any company for any period of time, you've probably participated in this language building. Sometimes this happens very explicitly, especially for developers. For example, if you've had an architecture meeting about a particular concept, maybe you're designing an interface, or you're designing some kind of API, and you're trying to name a concept. And you go back and forth on a few words, and you finally come around to some word that captures the meaning that you're trying to convey. But now that you are adding new meaning to that word, it no longer means what it meant before. You see, everyone in the room brought with them a context for what that word meant before it gained its new special meaning. Software engineers tend to be particularly aware of these kinds of pieces of information, and you might especially see this in object-oriented programmers. Object-oriented programmers deal with special objects in code. And because we have these special objects in code, when we say the word that the object is represented by, there might be two different mental models that are at play. The word in its informal existence outside of the software, and then the word in its formal existence inside of the software. For example, we talk about people. We generally use the word person, or human, or individual. And then we talk about users. This is perhaps one of the most common examples of this. A user is typically referring to a special kind of object, or a special kind of person in the way that they're interacting with their software. But the words are not just limited to object-oriented special classes. In fact, companies often build up this kind of language in their regular discussions about the company, about the product, about their users, about their market. And sometimes it's just simply a cultural thing. You may have an experience together. And out of that experience, you once again imbue a new meaning on an old word. And so in many ways, this is actually one of the most amazing things about our ability to create culture with each other. We can take an existing word and create new meaning from it. So it becomes richer, and it becomes a shortcut, a heuristic, that we can use together. And it creates kind of more leverage out of our language. At the same time, wherever we have heuristics, wherever we have extra leverage, wherever we have additional meaning, there's always room for error and misunderstanding. Because again, everyone brings their own context. And perhaps not everyone was there for that experience. Or maybe they don't really understand all of the objects that are in your software. And so how is this language both hurting and helping us? Well, it's hurting us because sometimes the language that we use is not necessarily as clear as it can be because we're tapping into the cultural meaning and everyone has a different perception of that cultural meaning. That's especially true when you're talking about people who have been at the company for a long time versus people who are new to the company. It's helping us, however, because we can convey a lot of meaning with much less effort. This can tighten up your culture. It can bring you closer together when you have not really secret pass codes, but more like an internal dialogue. Something that makes you feel connected because you share this common code. So what can we do to protect the good parts and hopefully address the bad parts of having a subcultural language? We're going to talk about that right after we talk about today's sponsor, Infinite Red. Learning AI isn't just for academics and data scientists anymore. And if you've been interested in learning AI but you didn't know where to start, AI demystified is a free five-day mini-course that might be a perfect place for you to start. It comes from Infinite Red or Sponsored today. At the end of five days, you're going to be able to talk about AI intelligently. For example, in day one, you'll learn the difference between AI and machine learning. And in day two, you're going to learn about the three most common types of AI, which are, by the way, supervised, unsupervised, and reinforcement learning, as well as some example applications of those. In day three, you'll learn about how AI applies to visual learning. And in day four, you'll talk about generative adversarial networks. Once, one machine versus another. Finally, in day five, you'll talk about where AI is headed next. Go and check it out. Head over to AI.infinant.red. Thanks again to Infinite Red for sponsoring today's episode and helping people understand AI a little bit better. So we're talking about subcultural languages. And this is nothing special. It just means that you have some group of people, and they've added meaning to words that a larger culture may not necessarily intuitively know. This is true, especially for companies where people are spending time hashing through concepts together. If you're building a product, this can happen as well. And we've discussed some of the problems that can arise from this. And as a new person in a new culture, you may feel left out. Or you may not necessarily even feel left out, but you're not quite understanding what people are saying. It seems like there's more meaning, but you can't really grasp it. And it's really difficult to capture that because some of the discussions that have happened around those words were experiential. In other words, it kind of had to be there to totally understand what it meant. And so how do we avoid these kinds of problems, but still retain all of the value that this kind of subcultural, special language can have? Well we can go back to what makes the language so powerful to cultures to begin with. And that is to carry meaning forward from one person to another. In many cultures, the people who have the most experience in that culture, sometimes the elders of a culture, they will take time to pass on the meaning, the stories of their culture to, in particular, children. And within the frame of a company, really all this means is passing on the meaning from someone who has been involved with this language making within the company to people who are new to the people who have joined the team afterwards. Now here's the critical factor. It's extremely difficult to know which terms you have imbued with new information. What terms are not necessarily intuitive to the new people who are joining the team? And so this is actually an exercise for the people who are new on your team. The new people should be able to ask what seemed like very obvious questions to the long time veterans in the company. When all else fails, apply the Feynman technique. Attempt to explain everything as simply as possible. Explain it as if you were talking to someone who had never been in this industry at all. This process doesn't take the meaning away from the words. Instead, it makes that meaning easier to transfer. And that is fundamentally what makes language so important to our race as humans, but also what makes it important to our culture within a company. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. A huge thank you to Infinite Red for sponsoring today's episode. Head over to ai.infinite.red to learn more about AI over the course of the next five days. Thank you so much for listening. Today's episode wouldn't be possible without spec.fm. A network for desires and developers just like you who are looking to level up in their careers. There are other awesome shows that you have to go and check out. Head over to spec.fm. You can find every episode of Developer Tea there as well. Thank you again for listening. Today's episode was produced by Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.