Five trendy terms defined well enough to decode geeks you overhear in a coffee shop

Pixabay — CC0 license

Nothing is worse than going to a social event — or eavesdropping in a coffee shop — and hearing a tech person chattering away making you feel intellectually and technically inadequate.

I’m here to let you in on a secret. None of this buzzword chatter is really that hard to understand. This is not to say that learning these topics at the level where you could be employed in jobs areas that regularly use these terms is easy. Far from it. But to be able to listen and even to ask questions or challenge ideas surrounding this buzzword bingo isn’t really that hard.

If this series of essays lets you overhear a coffee shop nerd chatting about something and you now understand the general gist of their topic, I’ve succeeded! And perhaps you will be motivated explore a particular topic or topics in greater depth. Let’s kick off the series with five terms you are likely to hear in the aforementioned venues.

Something-aaS — Something as a Service
Examples include SaaS (Software as a Service), PaaS (Platform as a Service), DRaaS (Disaster Recovery as a Service), IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) and on and on and on…

Back in the day, you bought something. Say a big computer to put in an air cooled basement. Or a bunch of backup disk drives that went into a closet in your Akron office. Or a super expensive customer database software system for your home business that you ran on a second PC in your closet in the basement. And you hired people to install, manage, and service the hardware and software that accomplished your business needs. Or spent way to much time doing it yourself.

Now, with the “as a Service” model, rather than owning and operating the hardware and/or software yourself, you engage with a firm on a monthly or annual contract to provide those services to you. In the “as a Service” world, from your perspective, where the hardware and software are physically located is no matter to you. You don’t need to have people on staff to monitor the systems, update the systems, and manage security issues. When systems and services are updated and improved, you automatically receive these updates. When more (or fewer) resources are needed on these systems, you just change your subscription level, just like when you need more data or a new line on a mobile phone account.

The best example, but far from the only example, is SalesForce. Rather than having to run a customer database and set of sales and marketing applications on your own, you pay SalesForce and their partners to do it for you based on how many people needs access to your customer relationship management system and its capabilities.

“Something As A Service” — Don’t buy or lease the software and hardware, rent it by the month.

Growth Hacking (Growth Marketing)
This particular term irks me, and a quick Google search will show a variety of heated discussions about it. I fall on the side of this “new” term not really being needed so much. But alas, it exists, and here in a nutshell is what I think people generally mean by it in a practical sense.

Growth hacking is a philosophical approach to using a wide variety of tools and methodologies to most quickly and effectively grow a business by rapidly experimenting with approaches, measuring results, and adjusting on the fly based on collected data and observed findings. (Also known back in the day as being a sales and marketing person, but I digress into snark…)

My optimistic neurons see the term as identifying authentic and valuable and truly new things one can do with truly new marketing tools and analytic approaches (“Hey, look the heatmap of the ecommerce page from yesterday compared with the day before! Our A/B test showed how we can improve sales 12% by just moving these buttons above the fold!”).

My pessimistic neurons see this as a self-justifying and possibly elitist term to justify people’s academic positions or fully replace the art of sales and marketing with a 100% science based approach. (“We need better ‘SEO articles’ to drive traffic to our site! Who cares if those articles are off-brand or even not telling the truth! We proved they increased the site visits!”) Hint: It’s about art and science. It’s about old and new. We’re humans, the tools may have changed but our motivations have not.

The goal of most business was always to “grow.” Companies that did it the best way, with the most risk taking and willingness to fail, usually succeeded when compared with their more risk-averse competitors. This is still true, and there are many more tools to help. But the core approach to growing a business remains. What does the customer need? How can I solve their problems? Can I be better/faster/cheaper than the competition? How do I get people to find out about me? How to I manage the awareness, trial, purchase, retention funnel? Do we need a shiny new term? Probably not, but it’s here and that’s “Growth Hacking.”

“Growth Hacking” — Figure out how to market and sell with an aggressive willingness to experiment with tools and processes, learn, and iterate.

Microservices
My programmer friends are gonna really hate my over simplification here. So please remember why I wrote this piece. Microservices are an example of “what is old is new again,” with a better, more refined, flexible, and powerful packaging.

Way back in the day when someone needed to write software, developers just wrote a monolithic bunch of code, tried to make sure it worked, and shipped it.

Then, when code got large and unwieldy and hard to test, developers figured out ways to design it in blocks that were reusable by themselves. Then reusable by other members of their team. Then by other members of their company. And perhaps even licensed to the outside world for use in 3rd party solutions.

Suppose we wrote a “handwriting recognition” function. We made that function available to others on our team. Then to other products in our company sold. Then we actually sold “handwriting recognition” to 3rd parties who needed it, but they had to put our code into their product, which was a nightmare to update and support and improve on a timely basis. Now, we provide a “handwriting recognition microservice” to customers, be they customers inside our own company or, if the business justifies it, customers outside of our company.

You need handwriting recognition in your application? We define how you need to submit that chunk of handwriting to our micro service, and we define the result we will send you in response to your query. What you do with that result or error message is up to your application. Our “handwriting recognition” service can be updated over time to perform better and faster and more accurately and you won’t have to change or update much or even anything on your application. We may even track who you are so we can bill you internal “funny money” if your team is at our company or bill actual money (and turn off the service for non-payment) if we are making this service available to a 3rd party.

“Microservices” — Software features and functions neatly packaged with well defined ways to access them for use in multiple applications or even by a business partner.

Blockchain
Lots and lot written about this. My goodness there’s a lot written. So here’s my quick take for the cocktail party level of understanding.

1. Blockchain doesn’t equal Bitcoin.

2. Blockchain is a technology that enables (allegedly) secure, trackable, and (allegedly) anonymous transactions to happen.

It’s pretty complicated to explain how it works — others will do a much better job than I can. But here’s a practical example that isn’t about digital money.

Imagine that in the near future you wrote a song and recorded it to sell a version of it. You want to ensure that when you claim copyright on it that you can better enforce that copyright. The digital performance of that song, the written score, and even the lyrics and album cover can be digital documents that have a mathematically unique “signature” that was created at a specific time. By tracking those digital signatures in a distributed set of computers with no single point-of-failure and no one company or government owner, you can in theory prove that your artwork existed at that point in time and in that exact form, helping make your copyright claim more easily enforceable. Same for medical records. Same for court records. Birth records. Oh, and financial transactions with digital currency. And a bunch of other areas.

This is why Blockchain is big. Bitcoin is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Blockchain” — A method to securely and immutably track transactions so in theory, any party can independently confirm or deny if that transaction took place as claimed.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
Virtual Reality is when you use a device that has sensory inputs and outputs like motion detection, screens, speakers, and haptic (touch and vibrations) to convince your brain that you are somewhere in a world other than where you really are. VR attempts to as completely as possible envelop you in another environment that is clearly not the one you are in. Think of wearing a pair of goggles and headphones that make you think you are feeding dinosaurs by a swamp on an alien planet. Or if you are a Black Mirror fan, injecting it directly into the brain with a small device on your temple.

Augmented Reality is when you use a device that has sensory inputs and outputs as with VR, but tricks your brain into thinking there are new objects and sensory experiences in the real environment in which you are actually existing. Think of looking at your cell phone screen with a app that uses your camera to show you your car engine, but overlays in real time in the correct location a red arrow that shows you the specific bolt you need to loosen to perform a maintenance task. Or play Pokemon go.

Integrated Reality (a term that doesn’t exist but that I’d like to coin, see this article ) is when real-world objects interact with digitally created realities. Think of the case when a child’s doll has electronics that make it aware of both the real child in the room as well as the virtual Pokemon the child sees as a project. The doll would be an “Integrated Reality” toy.

“Virtual Reality” — Stick yourself inside a virtual world.

“Augmented Reality” — Place virtual experiences inside your real world.

What’s next?
Was this level of description useful? Insulting? Let me know if you’d like some more and in what ways you’d like me to try to improved your cocktail party abilities. What’s next? Big data? Machine Learning? Crowdsourcing vs Crowdfunding? BYOD? Personal Brand? Chatbot? NPS? Cognitive Libraries? Let me know.

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