Microspeak: North star

I noted it in the interview with the Defrag Tools show, but I'll make a proper Microspeak for it. Today's term is North star.

This term rose quickly to prominence in October 2015. My research suggests that it had been simmering below the surface for about a year. For example, here's an isolated citation from May 2015:

The best you can do is paint a compelling picture of an improved world (your north star), and plan the long journey to it.

This citation is interesting because it seems to give a definition for "north star": It means "a compelling picture of an improved world".

The term has become wildly popular of late at Microsoft. I guess a major executive used the term recently, so now it's suddenly the cool thing to say.

We had a team meeting a little while ago. One of the agenda items was "Longer term North star topics", which was itself rather intriguing. During the meeting, I noted¹ the following uses of the term:

There may be changes along the way, but your north star of the feature is intact.

We have to decide where we want to go as a north star.

I raised my hand. "What do you mean by north star? Because if you follow the north star, you end up at the north pole, and not where you actually want to go."

The speaker seemed a bit frustrated by this question. "Who is this idiot who doesn't know what a north star is? Certainly this person hasn't been in all the meetings I've been in, where people are saying 'north star' all over the place."

The speaker noted that I might want to look it up in the dictionary, because it would have told me that the north star is the goal you have beyond your immediate goal. It's a guiding principle that keeps you on the right path for your journey. (Curiously, this definition doesn't appear anywhere in any online dictionary I could find. It also doesn't match the citation at the top of this article.)

So there you go. An explicit definition, as provided by somebody who used the term. I embarrassed myself in front of my whole team for you.

Bonus chatter: Later that same day, a top executive sent mail to the entire company. It too used the term "north star":

With Microsoft's mission as our north star—to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more—we have a...

¹ Yes, when I attend meetings, one of the things I pay particular attention to is new jargon, so I can add it to my collection of citations. If you see me pull out my phone and jot something down, it's either because I'm writing down a question to ask later, or I'm preserving something you said so I can add it to my Microspeak citations.

Comments (21)
  1. Joshua says:

    Where do you want to go today? A cold place that's for sure.

  2. Boris says:

    But isn't the lone star of a feature more important than its north star?

  3. rw says:

    The speaker really said idiot? Is this how you talk to each other as Microsoft? I'm shocked…

  4. AC says:

    @rw: No, that's what Raymond thinks the speaker thought, not said.

  5. Brian says:

    Well…  As a dozen year veteran of the company, but one who is now exactly four years removed from my blue badge, I read "north star" above and got what passes as a definition mostly right.  No, I'd never heard it used that way before, but it's internally consistent with general Microsoft-ese; surprisingly, it makes sense to me.  I'm assuming that the entomology relates to the North Star being a navigation beacon, one that you use to guide you in your journey to where you want to end up.

    Joshua's comment reminded me of a product once known as "Microsoft Operations Manager" (one of the predecessor products to "System Center").  It was, of course, known by the acronym "MOM".  Occasionally, you would see the "MOM slogan" as a joke on an email: "Just where do you think you want to go today young man"

  6. laonianren says:

    I looked it up in the New Shorter OED, fully expecting to find nothing but a mention of the star.  However, it defines "North Star" as "the polestar" and "polestar" has a non-astronomical definition:

    "A thing that serves as a guide, a lodestar, a governing principle; a centre of attraction; a cynosure."

    This long-queued blog post references events in the last month and this example of Microspeak has found its way into my twenty-year-old dictionary.  The time machine works!

  7. Brian_EE says:

    If you get to your north star, do you say OnStar?

    Probably not. MS lawyers would likely be afraid of GM suing them.

  8. rich says:

    So glad I left the Big 5 consulting world where they didn't even have any moderately cool technology, it was all about finding the next cool buzzword

  9. Boris says:

    @Brian: the problem isn't understanding, it's awkwardness. I'd feel awkward listening to such language, let alone using it on an everyday basis. In the context of software development, I'm used to precise, descriptive terminology matching the underlying development model. The functional specification (and/or the program manager in Microsoft?) should be the interface between the metaphor-filled world of marketing go-getters and the process-driven world of software development.

  10. Michael Burr says:

    I wouldn't have read "compelling picture of an improved world (your north star)" as a definition of "north star".  I would have understood it as indicating that the "compelling picture of an improved world" is your guiding principle.  Or something like that.

    And remember that you can use the North Star for guidance even if you're not heading North. At least you can in the Northern Hemisphere.

  11. Yukkuri says:

    Even allowing for some degree of exaggeration in the retelling of the story… wow. Whoever the speaker was should probably check some dictionaries before making the 'look it up lol' comment.

  12. dave says:

    This usage seems like a pretty ordinary use to me, in the sense of 'defined almost nowhere and understandable by almost everyone'.

    My desktop (paper) Concise Oxford [required to be carried by all Englishmen outside their country] has the north star -> pole star -> 'thing serving as guide' definition.

    But then again, maybe owning a recording of 'North Star' by Philip Glass clued me in.

  13. Tim says:

    Isn't everyone's ultimate goal to live among a bunch of shifting icebergs in the middle of a freezing sea with no safe land mass nearby?

  14. > the north star is the goal you have beyond your immediate goal

    This is kind of backwards, but I think I can see where it came from.

    Polaris (the actual "North star") is used by sailors as a fixed point for navigation purposes, and has been for a very long time.

    It doesn't tell you where you want to go, of course. That's not its purpose.

    But all the other stars (and indeed all the other locations in the sky, except for one) MOVE. So they're useless.

    So the general idea is:

    1. Find Polaris (or the southern fixed point). Now you know which way is North… and therefore you know all the other directions.

    2. Go whatever direction you want, now that you know which way it is.

  15. Ted says:

    The reference here might be historical. The Underground Railroad used the "North Star" as its guide toward freedom (the North Star and the Big Dipper were the primary celestial bodies used for navigation). In that regard, Polaris was the distant guiding light towards the goal, but you'd get as close as you needed to long before you actually reached it.

  16. Speed says:

    I think the term "guide star" would be a more appropriate.

    "Most modern professional telescopes use a guide star. An autoguider is pointed to a sufficiently luminous star that lies near the object being observed and, if the pointing begins to drift, the error can be detected and the movement corrected. This is most accurate when the corrections are applied by a computer, but amateur telescopes often have manual correction (requiring the observer to continuously follow the star by eye for the exposure period, which may be a significant length of time)."


    Since the above is used to cancel out movement caused by the earth's rotation, the North Star would not work as a guide star.

  17. Boris says:

    @Speed: "guide star" sounds more scientific and therefore lacks the romantic note which is needed for successful motivation.

    Again, it's not about whether or not it exists in dictionaries, but more what Raymond observed in the above post – it wasn't used at Microsoft, then it suddenly came in vogue. It implies the speaker is a follower of trends as opposed to their own version of the north star.

  18. David Totzke says:

    Charlie Kindel, formerly of Microsoft, has been using the term since at least mid-2012.  


  19. Ben Voigt says:

    @David: interesting that everything said in that blog page, both the article itself and the comments agreeing with him, turned out so totally disconnected from reality.

  20. Boris says:

    @Ben Voigt: site:blogs.msdn.com/ "north star" yields 31 results, not all of which are relevant and most of which seem to be inspirational in nature. David Totzke finds one former Microsoft employee using the term, and this is supposed to be enough to discount the perception of a twenty-plus-year Microsoft employee?

    The point of the article is that there are hip, motivational buzzwords which usually trickle down from above in the management structure, and not everyone feels comfortable with them. They don't need to be in dictionaries, they don't need to be brand-new. It's how they compare to standard, everyday English that counts. Are they neutral, or are they trying to put an artificial spin on things, thus indicating that the writer really seems to be an aspiring consultant or executive?

    In this case, "north star" transforms a software development team into some sort of romanticized ship's crew on an ocean of conflicting requests. Why do we need such distracting imagery? There are customers, and you as a software professional are trying to do well by the customer within the scope of your requirements and the budget alloted for them.

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