Telecom Jargonosaurus Part 1: Repeat Offenders

Ever wondered if an "agile" telco is one whose CEO does gymnastics? Or what the hell a "waterfall" has got to do with software development?

You are probably not alone. Jargon is a dirty word in the writing business, and yet it's easy to slip into bad habits when writing for a specialist audience. All too often, technology writers depend on the reader's supposed familiarity with ill-defined expressions. The vagueness of those terms can also betray a writer's laziness (if he or she can't be bothered to explain or figure out what something really means) or lack of understanding.

Original Wordsmith
'End-to-end silos?' Samuel Johnson, who compiled one of the world's first dictionaries, looking suitably confused.
'End-to-end silos?' Samuel Johnson, who compiled one of the world's first dictionaries, looking suitably confused.

This is not about acronyms and technology terms with a very specific meaning, such as 4G (fourth-generation mobile) and FTTH (fiber-to-the-home). Indeed, many of the words and phrases that sow confusion probably turn up in writing about other industries. And they are a hallmark of some consulting firms, which have made a living by coining jargon and then using it to hoodwink their clients.

Writing a Friday-afternoon story like this means facing up to one's own infractions, and there are doubtless many occasions on which your correspondent has strayed off the path of clear prose and into the jungle of jargon. But it's good to remind oneself of the worst offenses. Here are some of the top contenders:

  • Flexible: Increasingly used to describe the benefits of SDN and NFV while the industry tries to work out what the benefits actually are. Someone who's flexible can be either bendy (like the tennis player Novak Djokovic) or adaptable. It's the latter definition people obviously have in mind when describing a telco as flexible, but it's horridly imprecise.

  • Agile: Closely related to flexible, and occasionally used when flexible turned up in the previous sentence. Agile is not quite as offensive because it denotes an organization that can move quickly to address its challenges. Far preferable would be an accurate description of those challenges and what the company is doing about them, exactly.

  • Efficiencies: In the same family as flexible and agile, it usually means cost savings and related measures, like cutting the time it takes to fix a broken basestation. It's often deployed euphemistically, as an alternative to the much nastier but more specific "job cuts." Operators also use it to mean "an improvement of some kind" when they don't want to fuss over the pesky details.

  • Transformation: One of the in-vogue words of the present day, suggesting the butterfly's glorious emergence from its chrysalis. Transformation has unfortunately been a lot uglier in the telecom industry, and the term covers a multitude of sins, from cack-handed IT swap-outs to the dreaded "cultural change." It is frequently used by senior executives unsure exactly what their underlings are doing.

  • Digitization: Transformation's even more grotesque kid sister, this one is popular because it evokes images of the futuristic telco with none of that unpleasant analog baggage. The big problem here is that digital technologies have been around since the days of 2G. What the industry usually means is substituting web technologies, like online shopping channels, for old-fashioned assets, like shops. But this carries some negative connotations because of the impact on jobs. Often interchangeable with transformation, digitization's popularity is on the rise among telco executives as journalists increasingly write about failed transformation initiatives.

  • Synergies: More of a general CFO crime than one specific to the telecom industry, the word synergies, according to a dictionary definition, means "the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects." While rarely used outside this context, it goes down as one of the most hideous words in the English language. Number crunchers love synergies because it seems less likely to prompt questions about job cuts than the more straightforward "cost savings." If the synergies in question are about revenue growth, "new sales opportunities" would usually suffice.

  • Convergence: So meaningless it is the ideal word when you have no idea what you are talking about. Convergence used to be all about selling fixed and mobile services in one package. Then it meant building one core network to support your fixed and mobile services. Later, it was about combining fixed and mobile technologies to provide new services. And now it's all to do with different industries moving onto one another's turf. Thinking about convergence makes this correspondent feel like converging his head with a brick wall.

  • Zero touch network: One of the most recent additions to the jargonosaurus, this one is a real stinker. "Why zero touch?" said Mark Lum, the co-founder of the Layer 123 events business, in rhetorically questioning its use. "Because it is more positive than human-free network." Lum's assessment pretty much sums up its euphemistic appeal, but zero touch network barely entered this list. Unfortunately, it has already become so widely accepted in the era of automation that avoiding it is impossible.

  • Waterfall: ?

    Clearly, there are many more expressions that qualify for Light Reading's jargonosaurus. Stock consulting phrases like "hit the ground running" and "low-hanging fruit" are perhaps too hackneyed and generic for inclusion here. But please write and suggest further entries, or if you know what a waterfall is when it's not the Niagara Falls.

    — Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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    Roz Rose 7/13/2018 | 12:21:53 PM
    Here's another one Brilliant article, Iain. It reminds me of a buzzword bingo slide I've been using lately when talking about cloud-native...

    "Operationalize" is my current not-so-favorite one.

    Usually used in the context of getting some new technology ready for live, production networks, as in, "We're working on operationalizing our VNF on-boarding tools." You'd think someone would have thought about this from the start, but (too) often, it is brought up as if it was a last minute realization—"Oh wait, you mean you want this stuff to actually work? We just rigged it all up for a demo."  It seems like a word that shouldn't need to exist. And I can say from experience (don't judge) that it's really hard to say.
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