This originally appeared in the Financial Times and was reprinted in today’s Financial Review. It’s so true it’s painful. Until now, Apple was one of the few exceptions. Not any more.
Descent into drivel is a sign of Apple’s fall
By Lucy Kellaway
The ugly words suggest the group has got too big to hang on to what once made it different
Last Monday a job advertisement was posted on the Apple website. The title of the job: Thought Leader.
I’ve always wondered what thought leaders do all day. Thoughts are mysterious, unbiddable things; I have enough trouble leading my own and so cannot imagine what leading someone else’s would entail.
I studied the ad, hoping to settle the matter. It explained that the job was “to drive the conceptualisation, evaluation and execution of critical sale reporting projects on time and within business expectations”.
This offends on many counts. It breaks the rule that there should be no driving of anything without a steering wheel; the trinity of pompous nouns is energy sapping, and as for “business expectations” – what’s wrong with “budget”?
It also doesn’t answer the basic question. Reading on through the 27 further bullet points only confuses further. The successful candidate, we learn, must be able to “Identify integration points with other teams and drive high-resolution of cross-functional issues”. What is an integration point? Or a cross-functional issue? And isn’t high-resolution something to do with photographs?
It goes on to specify “experience collaborating and working directly with both business and IT resources”. Are these resources animate or inanimate, I wonder? It might be nice to know.
The reason I am making so much of this miserable piece of business gibberish is because it comes from Apple. For years I have held up Apple as a lone example of a big company that uses words beautifully. Even its legal documents used to be snappily written. My favourite was one produced four years ago that laid down conditions for what it was prepared to sell at its App Store.
“We will reject apps for any content or behaviour that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, I’ll know it when I see it. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it”, it said.
This was clear and funny – and menacing in just the right sort of way. It showed what could be done with words: if a lawyer at Apple could write about dry technical stuff in a way that made you want to read on, there was no need for anyone to use ugly, obfuscating words to describe anything, ever again.
Which is why the Thought Leader ad is so upsetting. You could say I’m making too much out of this one example. Maybe someone in HR simply had a bad day. But if you scroll through some of the other 600 positions Apple is trying to fill, you’ll find something more sinister afoot. There is a vacancy for someone to design batteries, which one might have thought was straightforward. But even this involves 22 bullet points, including “Practicing exceptional documentation skills” – which I assume means taking notes – and “contributing positively to the engineering community”, which I take it means playing nicely with others.
Everyone knows that job ads are an area that attracts the worst sort of grandiose language, especially when they have been put through a headhunter’s mangle that makes every employer “world-class”. But when the company itself can’t describe what its own people do, and can’t say anything clearly about who it wants to fill them, I fear trouble.
Apple’s hitherto nice way with words was almost certainly a part of its success. Perhaps the language helped cause the success, or perhaps the success caused the language. The company’s new, ugly words suggest it has got too big and too corporate to hang on to the things that once made it different. Apple seems to have become at least as Kafkaesque as everywhere else.
Last week in the Financial Times there was a job ad from an organisation that still does things the old way. The International Monetary Fund is looking for a deputy managing director, and to explain the role, it provided two bullet points, saying it was part management, part strategy. About the successful applicant, it said it wanted someone who had a top job in the public or financial sector – and knowing something about economics would also help.
In the wildly inflated world of most recruitment ads, the title “deputy managing director” suggests someone too junior to make tea. At Goldman Sachs there are so many managing directors it would be a squeeze getting them into four jumbo jets. By contrast, the IMF gets by with just one – Christine Lagarde – and the deputy will report to her. He or she won’t have to prove a passion for integration points on cross-functional issues – which means there is a higher chance that the right person might actually be found for the right job.