Ever wonder how much back-channeling goes on before an acqui-hire? Ever known someone in the C-Suite of a disruptive startup that ended up as a Unicorpse because they spent so much time in the ideation paralysis of design thinking that they forgot to fail fast? Ever overdosed on a cocktail of Special K and Nootropics at Burning Man because the freemium play for your SoLoMo SaaS platform didn’t trigger the network effect you needed to hit your next tranche?
You have??? Jesus. I didn’t see that coming.
I was kind of hoping you’d say, “Dude, I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” so that I could have been like, “Then there’s this book you totally have to read.” So let’s just pretend like that’s what happened.
The book you have to read (just released May 17th, available on Amazon) is called, Valley Speak: Deciphering the Jargon of Silicon Valley; it is essentially a cultural portrait of Silicon Valley through the lens of a lexicon. By walking readers through definitions, dialogues and debates surrounding the terms and phrases most prevalent within and uniquely relevant to Silicon Valley, Rochelle Kopp and Steven Ganz are hoping to uncover what truly characterizes the infamous software stretch of Northern California that has both captivated and confused so many people around the world. It’s kind of like the Lonely Planet Britannica for west coast tech culture (Steven?? Did I nail it??? Whatever, I tried).
The book covers about 600 words and phrases and is indexed in such a way that it can help anyone navigate the conceptual space regardless of the angle at which they enter it: The Players, Innovation, Product Development, Funding, Technology Trends, Marketing, HR & Work Culture and Lifestyle. Each term is equipped with an essay, sample sentences and several quotes from Valley insiders to illustrate its meaning and varying application. It’s pretty damn handy.
“The whole point of the book was to make it very accessible,” Ganz told me. “…there is so much subtlety to the way these terms are used, we really felt like the best way to do it was to immerse the reader in these discussions and debates that go on about these words.”
I continued chatting with the co-author about the why, the how and the what…
Why did you decide to write this book? How did you identify the need and the opportunity?
It actually came out of my wife and co-author’s work in consulting. She’s a Japan expert and has published many books for Japanese audiences, including one that was a more general exposition of business terminology. Somebody had suggested to her that a similar book for Silicon Valley jargon would be really helpful. That’s where the germ of the idea came from. I got involved with it as well, leveraging my own time in The Valley and experience with startups.
It was originally introduced as a book in Japanese called, Silicon Valley Buzzwords, about a year ago I believe. Since then, for this current edition, it has been extended and really flushed out a lot. We’re very happy with where it is now.
What’s the “X for Y” for this book?
…With ground-breaking things, there really isn’t an “X for Y”, and hopefully we’re in that category. People have referred to it as the Webster’s Dictionary for Silicon Valley, but I don’t think that really fits – at least that’s not what we were going for with the book.
If you have one in mind, we’re always listening and always trying to improve our marketing.
— Editor’s Note: See genius suggestion above —
Because of the amount of online content straddling this theme, I think it’s worth clarifying that this is not satire. This is a much more immersive and conversational education experience to me. But there is a lot of that content out there, and for a lot of people Silicon Valley might seem like some artificial fantasy land and perhaps even a bit self-important. Do you have to worry about people taking this seriously and admitting, “Hmm, maybe there is a legitimate language of that culture I need to know”?
We were very intentionally trying to walk a fine line there without being entirely on one side or the other. Obviously there is a certain amount of humor, and some of the jargon goes over the top, and we tried to get across some of that in the style of the book. But at the same time, it’s not intended to be a satire outright.
Pretty much all of the areas of technology have something that people can make light of, but we think that there’s a lot in there that’s worthwhile, and about how things are done in Silicon Valley…the reason why we really felt a need to do it was because we really do see some of the ways in which things are done in Silicon Valley as having a lot of value, and we’ve seen that move out to a lot of other places.
To us, Silicon Valley isn’t just the geography here in Northern California; it’s the way in which things are done here, and that is being exported to other areas of the United States and around the world. As that happens, it runs into a certain amount of resistance because people don’t necessarily react too well to sharing economy, or whatnot, depending on what end of it they happen to hit. So we felt like part of the benefit that we could add with the book was to get a better appreciation out there for some of the concepts in Silicon Valley.
So we’re really walking that line because we know there’s a lot to make light of here but at the same time, there’s a lot to pay attention to.
I wish this book existed when I was in business school.
Thanks so much. But ya, I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that would make it onto a text book list though (laughs).
The Obvious Question: how did you come up with the list? How did you decide which words or terms to keep out, and which ones were relevant? There are a lot of terms and phrases about which a lot of people sitting in a tech office could say, “Well, I use THIS term all the time.” I’ll throw out some examples of ones I didn’t see. In Development: “Production Environment” or “Staging Environment” or “Bug” or “Hardcoded” or “Security by Obscurity”. In Marketing: “Influencer”. Or some internal colloquial jargon like: “Noob” or “Code-Monkey” or “Spaghetti”.
What we didn’t do is come up with an exhaustive list of all the words that could conceivably be included and then whittle it down – that just wouldn’t have been practical. A lot of the terms you mention aren’t specific to Silicon Valley, although they’re certainly relevant to a lot of work that’s done here. For instance, something like, “Staging Environment” isn’t really linked to the culture.
“Influencer” is interesting. Ben Zimmer, who we spoke with a couple of weeks ago and who recently did a column on the book, he had a previous column on the word “Influencer”. That one I think is more of a creation of LinkedIn and such. It’s kind of gone from there more into general usage now.
“Spaghetti code” is a very important concept for coders, but it’s not really Silicon Valley.
“Code Monkey” we might have been able to do something with.
It’s actually a really difficult process to get the list laid out – I’m sure we didn’t do a perfect job of it. But the reason why it’s such a difficult process is that language just becomes something beneath the surface for you. You don’t really think to yourself, “These are the words in my Silicon Valley Vocabulary”; you just engage in conversations. We really had to make a conscious effort over a certain amount of time to stop every time we heard ourselves using a particular word, or somebody else using a particular word, and think: “Is that something that would be interesting for the book?”, “Is that something that people on the outside might find obscure?”
How often do you plan on versioning this out, even just because of sections like, “Technology Trends”?
I think some of the vocabulary in there will have a longer lifespan than others. I’m not sure that we’re going to take on versioning indefinitely but we’ll see. We’re looking at doing at least some sort of app or subscription service where we’ll throw out some new words as we come across them.
Some words like, “Unicorpses”, are a very moment-in-time sort of word but it was important to include because it really is saying something about where we are now with these companies of the original variant, “Unicorn”. I’d like to have it stick around a long time because I really like that word.
I think that the quantitative use of it with startups worth over a billion dollars is probably going to be time-limited just because valuations vary so much and we’ve already seen all these Unicorns pop up which defeats the more qualitative definition of “a startup that’s really special and has managed to put all the pieces together right”…
I want to dive into a few specific examples. Are you maybe splitting hairs a bit with “Geek” vs. “Nerd” distinction? Was there a rousing chorus of objection when the two were used interchangeably? Is that distinction a real thing?
For a lot of people they have been interchangeable. With all these words, we were putting ourselves in the position of being descriptive of the language rather than trying to set definitions, but inevitably what you write is going to be something that people refer to – so you want to pick and choose which descriptive things you include. So we did some research on what people were saying on the web about the differences and there were various explanations out there, but this one was the one that resonated the most for us.
Even if we might tend to use the terms interchangeably, at least at a conscious level, if you really think about the situations in which you would use one term or the other, there really are sometimes differences. If you start to dig in deeper and look at the real context in which they’re being used, ya, I think the distinction does make sense.
Why is every “Founder” not necessarily an “Entrepreneur”?
“Founder” has more sharper edges. You’re either clearly a founder or you’re not with respect to a particular company – that’s talking about something you are doing at a particular moment in time.
“Entrepreneur” is a broader word with more fuzzy boundaries. It expresses the spirit that leads one to become a founder. Sure, it’s possible that somebody can become a founder without having the entrepreneurial spirit, and as such they’re probably not so likely to be successful.
But to the extent that somebody is choosing to go the not-so-safe route of following their own dream and starting a company based on their vision of a change that they’d like to make – a way that they see they can add value – and having a sort of grittiness to go in there and get things done, just choosing to be a founder in the first place is some evidence of having that spirit.
What were the most fun & frustrating parts about writing this book?
Oh, fun? Being done with it (laughs). I’m kidding.
It’s hard to separate it out – there were so many frustrating aspects of the format that we selected for the book, where everything needs to fit into these two pages. That was pretty constraining. On the other hand it forces you to make hard decisions about what’s really essential to get across and what’s not so essential. I think that when you actually get something to fit in, and when one of those essays really just comes together, and gets across a whole body of knowledge, and it’s a lot of terms, that’s pretty rewarding.
It was a lot of fun to go over some of the quotes by some of the Silicon Valley insiders. That was probably one of the more enjoyable parts for me. There were definitely enjoyable parts in doing the essays, but I think there was more pure fun in going over quotes by experts and trying to put together a virtual conversation of the diverse views that people have regarding some of the topics we talk about.
Did anything surprise you while going through this exercise?
There are so many of these controversies and arguments that people have around some of these terms, and people take various sides on them and really feel pretty strongly about their positions. If one had asked me before writing the book, “Are people arguing about the underlying or the terminology?” I would have probably said without thinking, “Of course they’re arguing about the underlying concepts… words are just symbols and the concepts are what’s more fundamental”. But one thing that I really learned in doing the book is that there’s so much power that words have, and people really attach themselves to words.
The distinction between the words and the underlying concepts is a difficult one to make. The underlying concept is really abstract, and words, being more concrete, are what people relate to on a much more visceral level.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a debate about what the word, “Agile” means within the walls of a software company. But people really want to use the word.
Oh ya – there are various camps out there around agile. And there were some very interesting conversations online about Agile vs. Lean…and it all gets rather tribal. Certainly with Lean Startup and Agile it’s pretty clear to me, looking at them in this descriptive sort of way, that the “Lean Startup” people are taking some of the Agile concepts and applying them in a more broad way and a more resolute way to cover more parts of running a business and not just creating code. But for the people who are in the thick of it, it’s definitely one side versus the other.
Final thoughts and hopes?
I hope that in reading the book people get a real desire to use it as a starting point – not just to read more, which I do hope they do – but also to actually be more open to engaging with companies in The Valley. Perhaps starting some of their own companies, or really jumping in and being a part of everything that’s happening here. And to do it with a little bit of humility and humor.
As per their press release, if you have suggestions for words that don’t appear in the book that you would like to discussed in a future edition, please add it to the list at:
Ben is a Toronto-based writer and public speaker with more than a soft spot for 90s hip hop. He has spent over 10 years in business & tech, more than 20 in the arts, and an entire lifetime in a state of perpetual judgment (highly recommended). He is the author of the blogs This Is Your Brain on Dating and Love Gone Cray and can be found pontificating on Thought Catalog, Notable.ca, The Toronto Standard, Offline Magazine, Gasm.org and Huffington Post.
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