What's in a name? Three-lettered acronyms and their impact on development culture

Why do so many technology organisations describe their internal workings in terms off three-lettered acronyms (TLAs)? They can give rise to a coded language that contributes to a cold and impersonal development culture.

TLAs originally emerged as mnemonics in biological science. William Weber developed a TLA-based system for categorising plants in the early 1980s largely to deal with the practical problem of species names that were too long to fit on any labels.

Over the years the use has spread far and wide to describe currencies, airports, American presidents, countries and corporations. TLAs have gained acceptance in computing as a useful technical shorthand to the point where they have become ubiquitous.

Using coded language

Acronyms may be useful, but they are an indistinct way of communicating. They clutter text, hinder reading flow and can be cumbersome to pronounce.

This kind of short-hand provides a blank screen that does not directly convey any meaning. Acronyms often have double meanings outside of the narrow group of specialists who create them. They can be confusing and mistakes are easily made.

The main value of an acronym is in providing brevity. They can provide a convenient short hand for technical terms that might otherwise be difficult to remember. This makes sense when describing complex chemical compounds or naming species. If an organisation or architecture really needs a series of shorthand terms to describe their inner workings then perhaps they need to be simplified.

The effect on development culture

There is a difference between using abbreviations to simplify technical terms and adopting them as generalised short-hand technique across the organisation.

The impact that TLAs have on development culture should not be underestimated. They are not inviting or inclusive and they make it more difficult for outsiders to join in a conversation.

Acronyms tend to give rise to a cold and impersonal language where everyday speech is peppered with technical terms. This style of language is impenetrable to outsiders or newcomers who will need a glossary to understand the basic workings of the organisation.

When applied to organisations acronyms suggest a convoluted structure of foreboding committees with uncertain purpose. If you need a technical short-hand to describe the way your organisation works then you may need to consider simplifying it.

The words you use to describe an organisation are important. Spotify use softer, more expressive terms to describe their main organisational units such as “squad”, “division” and “tribe”. The emphasis is on describing collaborating agile teams rather than embedding the precise responsibilities in the name of the body.

The same goes for architecture. If you need overtly technical language to describe a system then it implies either contrived complexity or a lack of genuine understanding.

Guarding against TLA creep

Nobody sane ever sets out to design a glossary of TLAs unless they are trying to simplify a particular problem around complexity. Most systems of TLAs evolve over time as acronyms are added one-by-one.

Given that an acronym is a blank screen it can obfuscate the item that is being described. In general, if you're reaching for TLAs to describe something then you may want to focus on the kind of language you are using and whether you can be employing simpler, more expressive terms.