Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Do People Really Fall For This Crap?

I've recently taken to reading the wonderful Language Log website, an entertaining, scholarly, and occasionally snarky compendium of articles regarding various linguistic matters, written by some of the major names in the field. They recently presented their first "Becky", awarded to "people or organizations who have made outstanding contributions to linguistic misinformation". I was amused to see that one of the nominees (though not the winner) was somebody I worked with circa 1980, at my very first job. I was amused because I remember this person as a pleasant, glib, and sometimes entertaining co-worker who had the air of huckster about him. He was the sort of person who talked big and knowledgeable but, when push came to shove, never actually knew anything (or for that matter, produced much). We've all met these folks, and while we may have been entertained we have, I hope, learned not to rely on them professionally.

Evidently this individual has parlayed his particular brand of convincing bullshit into quite a career as a marketing communications executive and, in this case, a professional expert on language, despite no particular credentials nor any public pronouncements that stand up to analysis (he frequently refers to things like a "secret algorithm" -- a sure mark of a charlatan). Still, the media love soundbites and he gives good soundbite.

So I decided to Google this person, and while I've found very little that originates anywhere but from this person himself, I have found several instances of what I find to be the most concentrated sort of resume puffery: Too much that's too good to be true, and unnecessary marketing adjectives. For example, "X has served as a senior marketing and communications executive for some of the industry's technology leaders, including XX, XX, XX, amd XX (where XX is "a company you have heard of"). Why specify "industry's technology leaders" (and Dun and Bradstreet, on this list, isn't quite one of the industry's technology leaders)? In this case, that list was followed by 3 other companies where he "began his career". That's what I mean by "too much". Of course, he wasn't anything remotely approaching a "senior marketing and communications executive" at the company he mentions where I worked with him, and he doesn't quite say he was, but he sure implies it.

I know this is absolutely standard PR writing. (Elsewhere he does something similar by referring to having been "a senior executive at three Fortune 500 companies" and then listing out all three -- but it's important that you know they are "Fortune 500" companies). Still, it starts to make me question things. Especially in context.

When I met this person, he wore a Harvard ring and talked all the time about Harvard. His Harvard degree is mentioned all over his resumes and PR releases and gets mentioned as a credential whenever he is quoted in a public forum (even though his degree is not in the area in which he is claiming expertise). The Harvard mention used to enrage his officemate, whose husband actually had gone to Harvard. She pulled me aside to explain that this guy had finished up his undergraduate degree by taking classes at the Harvard Extension School -- which is a fine place to take classes, I took one there myself (in Human Genetics), but in Boston area educational snobbery parlance it's not quite accepted to refer to yourself as having "attended Harvard" if you meant the Extension School. Ultimately I have no idea what this guy's relationship to Harvard was, but the whole thing was odd and amusing to me. And it also gave me a heads up that I shouldn't take his self-descriptions too seriously.

At the time I knew him he talked a lot about all his published works, small koan-like things and cleverish whimsy he called "metafiction". By "published" it turned out he meant "self-published." Here's what he's now saying about this stuff:

XXX has authored hundreds of what The Paris Review called "prose poems," the Kansas City Star, "polyphonic prose," and Contemporary Authors, "metafiction". X's metafiction has appeared in hundreds of journals, anthologies, and collections including The Paris Review, New Letters, and Boulevard. X's oeuvre currently consists of some thousand creative works.

Aren't you impressed? I mean, two mentions of The Paris Review! And that arbiter of literary trends, the Kansas City Star, calls his work "polyphonic prose"! And with some thousand creative works, isn't it interesting that you can't find any reference to this guy's work through Google, except what seems to be self-generated?

But my real point here is how he describes two things in his bio that might make you think he really knows his technical stuff (my memory of him is that he always claimed or implied more technical expertise than he actually possessed), and that's where the subject of this entry comes from.

[X] was ...senior vice president, strategic marketing for X Software, where he helped pioneer the revolutionary Celestra architecture for "serverless" backup and data movement applications

Wow, to go from being a tech. writer working on office information end user documentation to pioneering revolutionary architecture for serverless backup -- that's impressive! Oh, wait, he "helped" pioneer. Which means he did his job as a marketing executive. But he implies that he developed some pretty high-level technology. Hmmm...

And then there's this:

X was a "contributor" to the National Research Council's national encryption policy, and was part of the team that won the first-ever "Best of Show' Award at Networld+Interop for an Internet Product or Service in 1995.

The quotes around "contributor" are not mine. Who the heck knows what that means. But I do know what it means to be "part of the team" that produced something -- it means, again, that he was in marketing. That he does not mention what the product was -- just the award it won -- is kind of interesting.

Reading all this makes me glad I downplay my own technical background on my resume. I find that it all comes out in the interview anyway.
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