Sunday, October 7, 2012

On job titles

It didn't take long before I noticed how little job titles mean. In my first job, you were assured to be granted a fancy title after only having acquired a minimum seniority, if you knew how to play the game. A more important sounding job title was HR's default bribe that often kept people from leaving for greener pastures, for a short while. But even after being upgraded from a stable cleaner to a Senior Barn Hygiene Technician, you're still cleaning shit though.

It goes without saying that I grew a healthy aversion from the hypocrisy of job titles pretty early on. They are nothing but easy incentives to provide volatile satisfaction, and are mostly worth just as much as it costs your company to grant them.

I always believed that the title you carry is rather meaningless. Everybody knows of a senior developer, technical lead, or architect, you wouldn't go to with any remotely technical question. Then again, I also know of people who can't be bothered to bargain another title, but have an extensive skill set, and can carry a project to the finish line. Without them, projects would have crashed and burned before lift off.
How people perceive you isn't something that can be enforced by a title, it's the result of your everyday actions. When you display mastery in what you love doing, people will take notice, and the word will spread like a wildfire. Eventually, work that you love doing will come to you, regardless of your job title. People want you to be on their team, because they care about what you bring to the table, not about what your job title is.

While I still stand by this view, it might be a bit too naive. Job title dynamics differ from company to company, and need to be examined carefully on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the classic enterprise, a title can influence your job substantially. There, when assembling a team, management often doesn't see an individual, but they see a resource playing a role. There, your reputation doesn't always have the chance to precede itself, but your title does. It would be a damn shame if such a small detail, a few words on a piece of paper, would regularly put you off to a bad start. Each organization also has a distinct opinion on what a certain title entails. It's worth studying these subtleties to be able to pick one that comes closest to what you want to do.

It's what you do that defines you, not your title. Yet, it's often indivertible to play along; titles can serve as a means to an end.

I'm interested in hearing your opinion. Do you think they are important, or do you just play along? Have you ever regretted not caring?

Bonus: relevant Futurama scene.


  1. I fully agree with the fact that your expertise should define you, not your title. However, commercially they are important, especially in consulting. The potential customer can only make his first assesment of you through your CV and your title. We all know that CV's are often padded to the point they start to look like stuffed animals and thus your title gives them an indication of what your company "believes" you are capable of. Of course, intake interviews etc. will prove most important, but often a title is the way in which leads to the opportunity to show them what you can do.
    That said, in a team or internally in a company the use for titles is far less important and can even stand in the way of a putting a good working team together.
    BTW I think someone had a very interesting presentation on sort of the same subject at our .net Cruise this year :-)

  2. Couldn't have said it better or agree more. I think the part I liked the most was how right you are in saying that the title does have some weight when your own company's higher ups see it. Thanks for the article, Jef.

  3. I'm torn between the two thoughts about job titles. But I think what bothers me sometimes is how job titles for white collar workers use their position as a natural gap from the majority of blue collar workers. To think that customer satisfaction management is all that we aim for, why not forget the weight of the position and help others to be like you as well.

  4. My promotion or changing of my job title was announced by our company's CEO on a video conference we had last week.

    1. Might give away how much your CEO cares for titles :)