They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well. Nothing’s ever absolute(*). It kind of hinges on who’s writing and who’s painting the picture. Take this abstract expressionist meisterwork:
It’s worth exactly 21 words by my reckoning, and even that feels over-generous. “Two big purple emulsion splodges on a black background; looks a bit like the pause button on an eighties cassette deck.”
Conversely, read this . One could fill a gallery with acres of canvas and not get across a tenth part of the horror conveyed in 220 spare words.
So, by and large, it depends. But in tandem, and in the right hands, the combination of prose and graphics can be bracingly pithy. Take this, which lays out the essential horror of a typical IT shambles on a single page using only six ovals, eight arrows and a few dozen words:
The original is here. Based on that, the author has a good claim to be the Picasso of software cock-ups, delineating precisely in a few well-chosen strokes what the rest of us would spend hours scrawling, doodling and mumbling about to far less effect.
But of course, for pithy graphical demolitions of the sorry and miserable world of IT failure, the target has been hit with laser-guided accuracy by Mr. Scott Adams most days since 1989. You can pretty much dive in anywhere on the Dilbert archive and come up with a pearl. Take this, from 2002:
I’ve worked on that project. So have you. Probably when the hatchet finally fell and the CEO, his big-ticket lieutenants and their retinue of Accenture / Cap Gemini / McKinsey / PwC / PA / delete-name-of-big-bucks-consultancy-firm-as-applicable left my workplace, they pitched up at yours the following Tuesday wielding the very same weighty, indigestible, content-free Enterprise Strategy PowerPoint presentation. Or this, from way back in the 90s
I’ve lived through that one as well, several times. I am now, as it goes. Simply replace “Interactive Holograms” with “Service Orientated Architecture” or “Standardising on the Microsoft / IBM / Oracle / Google / Apple / insert-name-of-currently-hip-American-techno-leviathan-here Stack” and kiss goodbye to productivity for the next five years.
The joy and horror of Adams’s creation is that it skewers not only the disasters in our own geeky ghetto but also the grim nonsenses which these days pervade the whole ghastly business realm. For example, the impossibility of getting a tiny bit of cash signed off to do a blindingly obviously necessary job:
Or the introduction of the next tranche of theoretically fantastic management consultancy wisdom, whether its effects are painful but localised:
Or all-consuming and countryside-ravaging, as in the dreaded full-scale thermonuclear IT transformation programme:
I could go on and on and on. Every day another boil on the backside of the body corporate is lanced and cauterised, and the correspondences between Dilbert and his co-workers’ miserable fictional lives and our miserable real lives are frequent and jarring. A few years ago I was working for a very large, arrogant and terrifyingly inept financial institution. It was confidently engaged in an expanding series of ever more tenuously justified commercial acquisitions which were accompanied by a similarly expanding series of ever more hateful technology integration deathmarches. All of this was supposed to lift the outfit from its lowly provincial roots Up, Up and Away into the Stratosphere of International Finance, where it would compete and win against the Big Boys from the US of A. Sadly, instead of leading up to the stars, this proved instead to be a perfectly plotted trajectory into the gutter. Specifically: effective bankruptcy, ignominy and having to throw itself onto the mercy of Her Majesty’s Government and the tax revenues of Her loyal subjects i.e. you and me (**). But until hours before this oh-so-well-deserved collapse, hubris was unbounded and each day would bring some new blue-chip brain fart, even within the limited confines of the relatively modest technology integration deathmarch I was working on. After a while, I noticed that my Dilbert Desk Calendar had moved from satire to documentary. Every morning I would rip off the old page to reveal a new one and the strip would resonate precisely with some current local stupidity.
Say on Monday, Dilbert and Wally were wrestling with Multi-Dimensional Matrix Management. In the real world we were welcoming another Workstream Director to add to the five we already had to report to. Tuesday, the pointy-headed boss had outsourced development to Elbonia as we were upskilling our new partners in Bishkek. Wednesday, PHB was bringing in Six Sigma while we were aligning ourselves to the Zachman Framework. Thursday, Catbert was rolling out the Skills Inventory while our beloved Human Resources Partner was introducing us to the Top Talent Tracker Initiative. Another day, another dose of surpassing feeble-mindedness, another direct parallel with the Dilbert cartooniverse.
It struck me then that the mental health of any workplace could be handily measured by comparing its customs, traditions and practices against a month of Dilbert. Try it for yourself. Run through the last thirty strips and tot up how many chime with your professional life. I suggest the following table for calibration and assessment purposes:
- Sub 10% / 3 or less: bog-standard unavoidable low-level background idiocy. Kiss your desk, embrace your colleagues, weep tears of joy into your laptop keyboard and rejoice at the relative sanity of your employer.
- 10-20% / 4 to 6: manageable occupational bullshit. You are clearly not skipping through Elysian Fields, but the BS could be an awful lot deeper.
- 20-30% / 7 to 9: if it were possible to buy the bits from Maplin and solder together a Dilbertometer, its needle would now be in the Amber warning zone. Weigh up your tolerance for bureaucratic absurdity against current salary and suitably convenient alternative employment providers.
- Over 30% / 10 and above: get your CV up to date, tart up your Linked In profile, and start tapping up your friends for job leads.
- Over 50% / every other day or worse: run screaming out of the building.
So, on the bases of consistent precision, breadth of coverage and sheer volume of caustic wit over the years, Scott Adams is The Daddy. But he can be topped. If you need one graphic which condenses all the elemental foolishness of our profession onto a single sheet of paper, then it has to be the legendary tree swing cartoon:
This picture stacks up at several dozen kilo-words-equivalent, by my count. Joyously and appropriately, it seems to be an anonymous and unattributed piece of folk art: as it delineates the sufferings of the IT peasantry, so it has been written and rewritten by them over the last four or five decades. This represents to me the heartening modern day continuation of the oral tradition. We may have progressed over the centuries from recitations around the camp fire or in the front parlour through Gestetnered memos, photocopies, email and now to online postings, but the tradition of whinging about work and taking the piss out of the bigwigs persists unbroken.
Some of the Tree Swing’s mysterious history is sketched here, along with a selection of historical variants. There seems to be no certified original, though it appears to be British and dates at least back to the sixties, but could be older. It is not even clear that it began life as a depiction of software, or even IT projects. It may have emerged in the electronics industry or some other branch of engineering; conceivably, there was a pen and ink version with copperplate captions pinned up in James Watt’s office. Given that it took Watt 17 frustrating years from his first experiments with steam power to installing a working engine in a colliery, and that his first business partner was bankrupted in the process, Watt clearly has a stellar position in the pantheon of engineering disasters.
(*) Never. Period.
(**) Assuming you’re a UK national and / or taxpayer. If not, lucky you, except that you’ve likely had some domestic financial basket cases to support since 2008 or thereabouts.