IN THE MID-2000s, managers at Google started giving an odd explanation when they rejected job applicants: they weren’t “Googley”. The reasoning was accepted for years, says Laszlo Bock, who led human resources at the company for a decade, until his team started to worry the trumped-up term could be used to exclude candidates from minorities. HR couldn’t ban the word but they could define it. They decided Googley-ness involves some combination of conscientiousness and intellectual humility. It is still used at the company today.
Every industry has its own jargon—a conversation with a doctor or lawyer can be as confounding as a chat with a coder. But tech-speak is particularly powerful. It catches on among the broader public, who use products from companies like Google, Uber and Facebook on a daily basis. The slang that emerges organically among engineers has proven particularly catchy. “Fundamentally, it’s a social phenomenon where people have a sense of who the most powerful and coolest function is and they begin mimicking that language,” Mr Bock says.
The lingua franca at tech firms tells you something about their culture: they are led by coders and everyone is in a hurry. The phrase “+1”, which now signals agreement on anything from dinner plans to political opinions, was first used at the Apache web-server project in the 1990s to approve a change to the code. It sometimes makes it into verbal conversation now as “heavy plus sign”, a reference to an emoji. “TLDR”, short for “too long didn’t read”, precedes a quick summary of a longer message. In a sign that Silicon Valley remains the centre of the industry, tech companies in London, Berlin or Jakarta use Valley lingo too.
The patois differs slightly between the FAANGs—as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google’s parent, Alphabet, are collectively known—and even between individual teams. Some Amazon employees borrow the language of aviation and talk about the “headwinds” and “tailwinds” around their projects. At Facebook “P0”, ‘P1”, “P2” rank priorities and drawing attention to something important is “signal boosting”. The vocabulary at Google is so complicated there is an internal dictionary for employees.
Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, an education platform, points out that smaller, “second tier” start-ups generally use “second-hand” slang from bigger players. They look up to the FAANGs and hire their alumni. “One of the ways you can tell the real deal is: Do they have unique jargon?” says Mr O’Reilly, who helped coin phrases such as “open source software” and “Web 2.0”.
Some of the new vernacular is functional, geared towards innovation. Nerds on the West Coast have produced smartphones, ride-hailing platforms and self-driving cars. “New things are being created, new technologies or new business models, so you need new terms to go along with that,” says Rochelle Kopp, who co-wrote “Valley Speak: Deciphering the Jargon of Silicon Valley” and produces flashcards on geek-speak for those that need to brush up.
But a lot of techno-babble is performative. At its best, it is a bit of fun and builds company culture, like wearing a hoodie or going vegan. At worst, it is exclusive and downright rude. “Unsubscribe”, for example, is not a polite way to interrupt someone. The complex lexicon works because Silicon Valley is a bubble where, even outside the office, tech bros hang out with other tech bros. Using numbers to replace letters in long words (Andreessen Horowitz, one of the Valley’s most famous investors, becomes “a16z”) is bewildering for outsiders. To complicate matters, phrases go in and out of fashion.
For newbies to get the patter, they must understand American popular culture. Master of Coin, Tesla’s new title for its finance chief, is lifted from the television series “Game of Thrones”. A “french fry moment”, used for occasions when a colleague anticipates something, is a reference to “30 Rock”, a sitcom.
Most of this jargon, like Googley, emerges in a bottom-up fashion. But tech leaders know language is a valuable tool. Bosses at X, a secretive arm of Alphabet that pursues ambitious “moonshot” projects, use vocabulary that evokes adventure and long journeys to keep staff motivated. Employees are “chaos pilots” and uncertain projects are “in the fog”.
Courtney Hohne, chief storyteller for Alphabet’s moonshots (which means she handles communications and marketing), tries to mix up her vocabulary to see what gets through to people. “There is a very fine line between natural-sounding concepts, things that weave their way into your everyday,” Ms Hohne says, “and culty propaganda.”