Friday, 23 September 2016

Evil Two, Three and Four Letter Acronyms

I propose the following three rules for Three Letter Acronyms (TLA)

  • Platinum rule: Don't use Three Letter Acronyms. Ever.

  • Golden rule 1: Only use Three Letter Acronym's if they are well-known1.

  • Golden rule 2: Don't create new a Three Letter Acronym.

One of the things we must continue to do in software development is to promote understanding. Every 5 years the number of developers doubles, so half the software developers out there have less than 5 years experience.

In our industry2, we have a huge love of Three Letter Acronyms. In fact we nearly have our own flavour of English in TLA's. And this is not surprising given the lack of typing skills during the early days of computing (that continues today!). It's a lot easier to repeatedly type TCP instead of Transmission Control Protocol. So we gain efficiency on the writing side of the communication equation.

However TLA's are a barrier for understanding for the reader. Especially for novice and intermediate reader. They are particularly evil when one needs context to understand them or when we create new ones that are local to the document being read. For example: in a telecommunications domain does IP stand for Internet Protocol or Implementation Proposal or Intellectual Property? If I load a module into a CD; is a CD a Control Device or Compact Disk?

Now consider that the reader may not be a fluent English speaker. Consider that the artefacts are written once, but read many times. Shouldn't we favour efficiency of understanding for the reader, instead of the writer?

So to promote better communication I propose the above three rules for software development teams to follow. Let me repeat that first one again. Never use Three Letter Acronyms! Use regular words.

1. Definition of "well known": If I pop the Three Letter Acronym into google and it comes up in the first 5 results.
2. We are not the only industry guilty of this.

Edited 20th February, 2017