While a consultant at Arthur Andersen & Co in New York City I was assigned to a high-pressure project for a Wall Street firm. We were proud to work at Arthur Andersen because this was way-back-when, before Enron, before helping investment banks was cause for abject ethical concern, and before the building we worked in was destroyed by hijacked airliners. It was the summer of 1985 when I was old enough to think I understood business and too young to notice that I didn’t.

We worked long hours in cramped quarters implementing mainframe software for an innovative financial product. One of the first derivatives, come to think of it. The bank’s internal developers had fallen woefully behind schedule and AA&Co was called in to rescue the project. Every day of delay, we were assured, was millions lost to the bank. Too many delays and the market would be taken by some other bank.

Threescore and eight “Arthur Androids” pulled from “the beach” in every office around the continent instantly gelled as a team and, as in any tribe, we quickly fell into the lazy habit of using buzzwords and nearly meaningless filler phrases. Using private language and code words to identify members and exclude intruders is as old as human language; jargon is just the modern form of shibboleths. Several of us, in true Method / 1 fashion, dedicated a worksheet to collecting a canonical list. I wish I remembered the names of the other collectors.

We delivered on time, of course. That’s what why Andersen could bill us out at six times what they paid us. For the closing banquet, I assembled the most used phrases into this official-looking memo. I distributed copies and read it aloud to widespread laughter and enjoyment at our own pathetic communication skills.

This memo was written before PowerPoint, email, and texting so it stands as proof that our language began its decline before technology replaced our voices. You can read it below or see the original I created in Multimate by clicking here.


Let me update you on the Shibboleth Project. We are getting into that on-budget and on-time mode as items out of scope impact on the status less often.

I also wanted get back to you on that matter you ran by me the other day when we did that lunch thing. It’s a priority to get something down on paper at this point on the learning curve and plug the decision makers into the loop before they shift into a head-in-the-sand mode. Let’s all put our heads together and be sure we’re headed in the same direction before we charge off with our heads in the clouds. This deal may accumulate too much baggage and iterate to death with user input while we’re facing a drop dead delivery date. Because of the time frame I’m dealing with this project isn’t at all leveraged and since I haven’t pushed it down the pyramid I could only pull together this quick ‘n’ dirty plain vanilla overview–nothing fancy, just a set of bullet points to sort of keep the team honest before I put any bells and whistles on it, make it sexy, and tie it up with a bow so we can run it up the flag pole for the techies in case some clueless greenbean who hasn’t made the commitment to even get his arms around the basic functionality tries to pigeon-hole it while it’s still up in the air and hasn’t even been around the block a few times to see if it’s going to fly or just get shot down the minute it looks like a done deal the client has gone through labor with, feels ownership for, has completely bought into and is ready to sign off on even without crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s, though a lot of flashy touchy-feely stuff may be needed before we walk it through for everyone on the critical path, not that we should conduct a full-blown dog and pony show but objectively the exposure on this is so great I can already feel the breeze on my fanny since it could spoil lunches all the way up to world headquarters and be a mega-career-limiting-move even for the sort of self-starting team players we hope to bring on board this project (not that I’m going to wait until all our ducks are in a row: let’s get smart and pass the baton to some real heavy, hands-on teamplayers who’ll slam a lotta code and put it to bed just as fast as the decision makers can hammer out the nuts ‘n’ bolts of all the fine print and the grunts lay a foundation by getting their feet wet and their hands dirty down in the trenches, doing a little green eyeshade work, running through the numbers, getting in bed with the movers and shakers A.S.A.P. and documenting in hard copy form the distilled high level feedback accumulated by physically doing the leg work, interacting with the end users not just some remote control overview of the hot spots, but a hands on, real-time, real world analysis.

What this all boils down to is cooking up a boilerplate approach with a canned package, so we can put out some fires while it sits on the back burner. I feel the heat from upstairs but it looks do-able. You’ve pushed all of my hot buttons, so lets sit down in a room together and send out for dinner while we’re still lean and hungry to chew over the meat and potatoes issues. To bottom line this thing, it’s no piece of cake but we haven’t bitten off more than we can chew as long as the concept is saleable and everyone is fully chargeable we can expand the scope to cover any real world contingency. I’m trying to avoid a no-win situation with a black box solution which turns out to be a non-issue no-brainer after all is said and done.

We should get cracking on plugging the gaps, make sure nothing falls through the cracks, take a swing at ballparking some figures, put some meat on it, give it some backbone, fill it out, dress it up, put it up on Lotus, skinny it down, get it in the pipeline, prioritize the to-do list, and tweak it ’til it’s squeaky clean. We need to walk through the calculations; run through the numbers, run it by the QA, run out for sandwiches, then run it up the flagpole so we can hit the ground running and have it up and running before the budget runs out. Then we’ll get the others up to speed before the whole show comes together down the line.

My comfort level is very high so if there’s a bug in my logic you can give me a buzz, get on the horn, ring my office, get a hold of my secretary, send a telex, DVX a patch to me and follow through by dex-ing the graphic back-up material. These parameters may be all wet but I’m willing to get my feet wet as long as we pool our resources to preclude getting in over our heads and having to pull the plug on a sink or swim scenario before we know if this thing will float or even hold water. Then this will all just be water over the bridge and under the dam.


See also, Misunderstood Jargon, on this blog.


For more about the culture at AA&Co in those days, see my novel, Crimes of Cunning.