Like learning Old Norse

Since I’m doing fieldwork at a software organization these days, I have very present in my mind the difficulty of getting my bearings in a new environment. Several researchers have reported of these difficulties in the case of newcomers to a software project (for instance, Dagenais & Co., Begel & Co., and Sim & Co.), but what we may not realize is that we, as researchers, go through a similar set of difficulties when learning about the terms and dynamics of an organization we were not familiar with, and getting over them takes some time.

I saw this firsthand a couple of days ago, when a colleague who hadn’t been with me at the field site in the previous weeks joined me for a few interviews. While I was conducting the interviews, I realized that she was probably not getting the meaning of almost anything in the conversation: we were using acronyms, names of other people, references to previous events, to some tools or products, to decisions or plans. By that time I was familiar with nearly all of these, but she wasn’t: she was at the point I was weeks before when I first walked into the organization.

This brought to mind a scene in an otherwise forgettable movie from 1999, The 13th Warrior, in which Antonio Banderas plays a Middle Eastern nomad fighting along a bunch of Vikings. It summarizes in three minutes the process that for us takes a few weeks to go through:

(But note! As opposed to what the clip above shows, the researcher does not end up referring to his or her participants as pig eating sons of anything! Also note that the researcher usually does not look like Antonio Banderas. Oh, and that, at least in software organizations, the participants rarely act surprised if the researcher suddenly starts speaking their language.)


About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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2 Responses to Like learning Old Norse

  1. Fer says:

    Para meterte mas en el personaje: (seguramente no lo tienes) pero si te lo propones puedes tener el acento como Banderas, no creo que noten las pequeñas diferencias.

  2. That feeling is common in everyone who starts in any new company, not only researches, but regular employees too. When moving to Montréal I just found a different culture and even a different English (here we close the lights, we do not turn them off). Fortunately, you can refer to certain people as poutine eaters and they won’t be offended.

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