So What's In Your DNA?


If it's cliche business jargon, consider what you're saying


My goal in 2005 is simple: to interface with all the people I promised I'd reconnect with so we can drill down in preparation for the next time we have to hook up to communicate about plans that we'll eventually have to execute.

If you have no idea what I just said--or worse, you actually do--then I suspect we are talking to the same people, the men and women who insert into every conversation the new lexicon of the IT business. Who can blame them? It's "part of their DNA," no doubt.

For reasons having nothing to do with stem cell research, what's in people's DNA keeps coming up more and more. Used to be, you'd keep that stuff private. But not the execs running companies today. Consider what Jonathan Schwartz, president and COO of Sun, told me late last year when I asked him if Sun's financial setbacks and hardships actually liberated the company to, dare I say, do something outmoded: "Think outside the box?"

Sure, he said, "It's in the DNA; it's totally authentic. Every once in a while, we have to just return to our roots."

Mixed metaphors aside, Schwartz is not the only one talking about what lies at the heart of his company's genetic strand. Consider Juniper Networks CEO Scott Kriens. He used the DNA reference when trying to prove his company's intentions toward partners. "The partnering model is just an extension of something that is in the DNA of the company," he said, with a straight face. At least he didn't use the word "execute."

What's Donn Atkins' top priority this year with IBM's channel program? Execute. It's the same for HP's John Thompson, Symantec's Randy Cochran and Sun's Greg Stroud. All three inherited big channel programs in 2004, and all three have said one of their biggest priorities is to execute on plans put in place by others. Execute. Execute. Execute. You know someone is serious when simply "carrying out" a mission, task or assignment won't do.

I've been wondering where some of this drivel comes from. The phrase so widely used by Microsoft people, "drill down," no doubt comes from the development side of the house where menu-driven interfaces once ruled. "Execute" comes from the money side of Silicon Valley, where Sand Hill Road meets the intersection of broken dreams. Remember all those men and women who ran dot-com start-ups and talked about putting granular things in multiple buckets to create compelling new value propositions that would forever change the paradigm? Never heard from them again.

"Interface" is a bit of a puzzle. The concept of manipulating objects on a screen with a pointing device was pioneered by Ivan Sutherland, who later went on to help create Evans & Sutherland, the great Utah company that sells simulation systems to the Department of Defense. Now Utah, my home state, is famous for its own lexicon, such as strange substitutes for the "f word," including "frick" and "fetch," and the more bizarre "oh my heck," which is a euphemism for "Jesus Christ" used in the classic, non-ecclesiastical sense. That said, I suspect Utahns aren't responsible for turning the noun "interface" into a verb.

There are books, Web sites and even organizations dedicated to helping sort out the mess IT has made with the English language. The Digital Lexicon by Keith Haviland and Nigel Barnes promises to help, but I wonder how much. (It's half price on Amazon.com and other sites.)

If you're interested in creating your own new words, phrases or terms for things that are otherwise much easier to understand when put in common, everyday parlance, there's a site that's ready-made for a would-be industry poser. At www.rightmousebutton.com, you will find a "Bull Maker" link, which is essentially a Java-based Web tool that randomly combines words and phrases from a column of verbs, adjectives and nouns to create phrases that sound dangerously close to what comes up in business meetings today. Think "incentivize enterprise interfaces," "streamline strategic infrastructures" and, my favorite, "leverage proactive initiatives."

I could go on, but I'm afraid that I might have to reboot my thinking in order to recalibrate your expectations. Actually, there is one term I'm actually fond of: "undo." My only lament is that there's no undo for my actions. That spilled cup of coffee, that missed credit-card payment, the last conversation I had with my mother--if only I could undo those things. That would make all the crap that blows in my ear more palpable. That or an embedded mute button. Hey, now there's something I wouldn't mind in my DNA.