Trouble with TLAs? Our Agony Aunt Advises

Dear Marjorie,

I try my best to keep up with the latest technology. I even read “IT Trends Monthly” religiously, but still become embarrassed in meetings whenever the developers namedrop some hot new technology that has passed me by, or toss out another dizzying TLA. I try to stay quiet and just nod my head wisely, but what is your advice?

Signed ‘An IT Manager’

Dear ‘IT Manager’,

First let me say that you have nothing to be ashamed of. Even the developers who speak loudly in meetings don’t know all the jargon and technologies; they just steer the debate towards familiar territory. If, for example, the only thing they know about is XML, then the whole of IT becomes a forest of XML Technologies such as XSLT, SAX, XAML or BeerXML (I was tempted to make one up, but this is real). If you know only JavaScript, then Node.js technologies tend to dominate your conversation

Managers can’t use this obvious trick so it pays to keep Wikipedia open on your mobile phone, when in meetings, and surreptitiously look up the offending TLA. However, it’s not always possible as managers generally are required to be conspicuously visible for the occasion.

Many of us try to bluff our way out of difficulty by feigning non-committal approval of the technology. Although this is a well-tried technique, it doesn’t work every time. A friend of mine recalls the ignominy of the ‘BNH incident’. His dev team were discussing whether to upgrade their NAS system to support the BNH v6 protocol. He was nodding away in what he hoped passed for a thoughtfully-intelligent manner, when he suddenly realized that it had gone quiet and all eyes were on him.

So what do you think? Should we do it?

Sweat trickled down his neck as he struggled for words. “Well, I’m all for it, if it’s going to fix the notorious latency issues with v5“. The room dissolved into uproarious laughter. He found out eventually that they had been arranging their social life using made-up TLAs. They were meeting for Beer in the Nags Head at 6pm.

A successful defensive technique is the “faulty hearing aid”. Let’s imagine, for example, that a lively debate breaks out amongst the devs about the relative merits of SAML for authentication and authorization data. You murmur approvingly at what feels like the appropriate junctures when suddenly one of the devs will turn to you and ask, “remind me again, my memory is terrible…what is SAML?”.

At this point the “faulty hearing aid” tactic comes into play. Simply reply “But surely everyone knows what XAML is by now?” If possible, give a dismissive laugh and change the subject.

Finally, here are a few other general techniques to consider, when pressed for an opinion on an unfamiliar technology:

  • ‘The tortured past’– Wince visibly, as if replaying ghastly experiences, and say, ‘look, I’m trying hard to forget the horror
  • ‘The Gartner report’ – look doubtful and say ‘surely the Gartner Technology report of 2014 cast doubt on its viability?’ You’ll be safe. No developer ever reads these reports.

Only use these if you’re sure the technology really exists. I know of one manager who used the ‘Gartner report’ ploy when his team asked his opinion on HTCPCP (RFC 2324). He still hasn’t lived it down.

The Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol (HTCPCP)

I hope that this helps, but I’m sure the readers of Simple Talk will add their suggestions, and vie for that coveted $50 Amazon gift card prize.

Signed Marjorie,
Agony Aunt for the IT industry

Commentary Competition

Enjoyed the topic? Have a relevant anecdote? Disagree with the author? Leave your two cents on this post in the comments below, and our favourite response will win a $50 Amazon gift card. The competition closes two weeks from the date of publication, and the winner will be announced in the next Simple Talk newsletter.


  • Rate
    [Total: 1    Average: 5/5]
  • Joel

    Another thing you could do – although I know it sounds outrageous – is to admit that you are not familiar with the particular TLA and ask them for a quick explanation…?

  • Cujo DeSoque

    I ask them to not use acronyms or buzzwords without defining it first and cite “in the interests of everyone present” when possible. A surprising amount of times they actually get the acronym or what it means wrong. At worst, you could come up with another meaning to the acronym. EG: TLA to me is the Theater of the Living Arts where they used to show “Pink Flamingos” on weekends at midnight. Having worked for people who could only spout buzzwords, it usually stops them dead after a few failures but there are exceptions and for them the southern expression “Bless their heart” was invented.

    As Joel stated, give them their head and see how far they stick their neck out. There’s no shortage of blades.

  • In this article, TLA stands for Three Letter Acronym, which is itself a TLA.

    • Andrew Clarke

      Recursive eh?

  • Richard L. Dawson

    What ever happened to tried and true tactics like asking open ended questions like, “What problem is this going to solve for us?” and “How does that compare to other methods?” and “What is easiest to implement?

    I know it’s tempting to pretend we know everything but I subscribe to my father-in-laws definition of the word “expert” noun: A drip under pressure.

    Also, for this discussion I tend to like my own definition of “TLA” noun: Typically Ludicrous Acronym.
    Now, where did I put that meeting Bingo sheet…

  • rogerthat

    I once worked at a place which actually had a system for TLAs. What was odd was any TLA existed in it, not just technical references “MPG”.
    I personally fight the green monster inside of me every day to be honest and open with what I don’t know. There is something about our overall field of Technology that drives us to hate the words “I don’t know, what is that?”
    Yet, when I think on what I most respect about a coworker or boss, openness and honesty are always at the top of my list.

  • Camilo Reyes

    Seems like a lot of “chasing after the wind” in this field. I feel TLAs are a symptom of a larger problem. Chasing after buzzwords seems like a sure way to ensure customers are never happy.

    The software you write is already complicated enough. The aim should be towards simplicity, and managing dependencies. The conversation must be around, does this make sense in plain English? Does it meet the need of real users? Is it elegant and effective?

    In my team, we created a rule around Agile ceremonies to avoid this. That is, get out of the weeds! The weeds are technical minutiae our customers don’t care about. This helps keep the conversation focused on what’s important.

  • I keep getting reminded of this Dilbert…

  • buggyfunbunny

    — No developer ever reads these reports.

    because our level of penury prohibits subscribing!