A Duck by Any Other Name…

“See, there’s always a duck,” I said to my colleague. Duck in Portugal I’m from the US; he’s from Finland; and we were both in Portugal on business. We’d taken a break from work to take a walking tour in the mild weather. I’d already told him how my youngest daughter had had declared the ubiquitousness of water fowl. As we were walking, I spotted a duck. I thought he would appreciate the joke.

“That’s not a duck,” he replied.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“No, it’s not,” he replied.

It occurred to me that maybe ducks in Finland look different. “OK,” I said. “If that’s not a duck, what does a duck look like?”

“White,” he said. “And bigger. That’s not a duck, it’s a sorsa,” he gave me the Finnish name.

Certainly, the duck we were looking at was not white. It had the colorful markings of a male mallard. “Right,” I said. “There are white ducks and colored ducks. But they’re both ducks. A sorsa is a kind of duck, right?”

“No,” he insisted. “Ducks are white and have bigger beaks than this.”

I began to sense that we might be talking about two entirely different things. “Big white water bird,” I mused. “with a bigger beak. Do you mean a goose?”

As we sorted out the difference between ducks and geese and sorsa, it dawned on me that this English-Finnish discussion offered a good example of the difficulty in sorting out a common language on software projects.

I started remembering all the conversations in which someone used an overloaded term like “server.” Or “test.” Or “done.”

For the record, it turns out that we were, indeed, looking at a sorsa. And it was, indeed, what I would call a Mallard duck in English.

But just contemplating how much effort it took to establish this simple basis of understanding about something we could see and hear, I am astonished that business stakeholders and technologists on software projects – something truly intangible – are ever able to achieve any kind of shared understanding about what we’re building and how it should function.

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2 Responses to A Duck by Any Other Name…

  1. Karen Johnson March 8, 2008 at 6:30 am #

    Amusing story. I just went through a term-language difference with someone. We were both becoming frustrated and I couldn’t understand – how he couldn’t understand. Then it dawned on him what the miscommunication was – as soon as he clarified his meaning of the term (that I thought we both had the same meaning of) all the miscommunication was cleared. We laughed a bit about it but wow – and this was with someone I know. Add that type of frustration to a deadline or where two people might not be so inspired to work things out and it becomes clear how quickly communication can become murky.

  2. Aaron Frost March 17, 2008 at 9:41 pm #

    Your comment about the word “done” being an overloaded word made me think. I enjoyed this article. I think that I will come back and read your updates.