What language are we in?

I recently started studying Talmud every week with a new chevruta. It's something I've wanted to do for ages and I found an amazing chevruta to do it with and we've been having so much fun. One of the things that we often find ourselves asking as we're studying is “What language is this bit of text in?”

When you're trying to figure out how a word is pronounced and what the conjugation is and the tense and the mood, the language matters a lot. If you're studying the mishna, it's probably rabbinic Hebrew. If you're studying gemara, it's probably Aramaic or Rabbinic Hebrew or Biblical Hebrew however it's not out of the possibility that you could have a Greek loan word thrown in. And if you're in a Rashi commentary, the language is probably Hebrew, but a later Hebrew than rabbinic Hebrew, unless he's quoting something, in which case it might be rabbinic Hebrew or it might be Aramaic. And occasionally when Rashi can't find the right word in Hebrew, he uses German or French written in Hebrew characters too.

And it strikes me that this has a lot of bearing to how we think about building software as part of a cross-functional team.

The many languages of business

When you're writing software, knowing what programming language you're in is helpful, but that's not what I'm talking about. What business mindset are we in? Are we talking product speak? Are we talking C-suite or business owner language? Are we talking sales? Are we talking engineering talk? Are we talking front end engineering or are we talking InfoSec or are we talking about devops?

This influences the literal words we use, whether or not folks understand our jargon and our abbreviations and our acronyms, and it also impacts how we speak and are understood.

I worked on a project where I had a very hard time communicating effectively with the stakeholders. One of the things that I learned was that they wanted optimistic certainty, and I wanted to provide transparent honesty. And so it wasn't helpful for them if I said, I think it will take three days, but there's A and B and C risks and I don't really know.

That didn't help them accomplish their goals and their work. What they wanted to know was, Do I need to communicate with customers that this project will be delayed or not?. Those are very different languages and it's very easy to misunderstand each other if you have such different context.

I think that there is tremendous value in stopping to ask ourselves what language is this conversation happening in?

It's not just one language for one conversation

One of the things that happens in the Talmud is that you switch languages very quickly. Sometimes, you'll have five words in Aramaic, and then you'll have four in biblical Hebrew because suddenly you're quoting the Torah, or you will have two words in Aramaic and then you'll have 10 in Rabbinic Hebrew because now you're quoting a mishna or a baraita.

I think that's true in business as well. What language we're speaking can change very quickly. Throughout a meeting, we might speak many different languages. An engineering leader might spend part of the meeting in leadership-updates speak, thinking about what she needs to tell the sales team and the CEO about the project timeline, and part of the meeting nerding out with the engineers on the gnarly techincal details. Or a conversation dives back and forth between a product view and an engineering view.

What language is this anyways?

When you are studying Talmud, there are certain clues as to the language you're in. The first is there are introductory words that a certain type of phrase is coming.

If you see שנומר, you are getting a biblical quote next. That's what's happening. Even so, you might be getting through something from Psalms or something from Genesis, and those are very different Hebrews, but you are getting something from Biblical Hebrew next. If you see Tanya rabbi so-and-so, there's a good chance that you have some Rabbinic Hebrew coming up, a quote from a mishna or baraita but it's not a guarantee. You might have something about the fact that they taught not a quote from them teaching.

Sometimes you don't have those clue. You have to rely on more subtle clues.

Other times, the clues are really obvious. If there's an absurd amount of אs, just what's even happening? Why are there so many אs? You're definitely in Aramaic. Biblical Hebrew doesn't do that. I once had a chevruta who said, it seems like the rabbis were inspired by the Greeks and how long their words were, so they just kept adding אs, and honestly, I buy it.

Sometimes it's really hard to tell; sometimes there is just not a clear answer and you're kind of left wondering. That's just real life.

But when we can name what language we're in, it gives us a lot more certainty about what we're doing and what's being communicated. And I think that that's true in building a good business, and shipping business value to customers as well. Naming what language we're in helps clarify communication.