Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

14 Jul 2014, 11:24 a.m.

Why Job Titles Matter To Me

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A friend asked for help in thinking about job titles and job descriptions, and said she was specifically interested in how to think about them and whether they matter at all. I gave her some thoughts, from my experience, and thought I might share them here.

I think job titles *do* matter, in a few different dimensions. Here are the three major ones.

  1. giving correct expectations about you (your skills, your expertise, your influence within your org, your seniority, your independence as a decision-maker) to people outside your company/org, who use that metadata as a hint to treat you appropriately (invite you to give talks, recruit you, ask you suitable questions when they meet you, introduce you to other resources, ask for introductions, offer to sell things to your org or buy things from your org or otherwise partner with your org, praise or criticize your org)
    (A subset of these goals: demonstrating for future recruiters/employers a particular career progression on your résumé.)

  2. giving correct expectations about you to people inside your org who don't already know you, e.g., new hires and Human Resources, so they treat you appropriately (assume you know/don't know certain skills and domains, take your advice seriously, invite you to the right brownbags and hackdays, put you on certain career ladders, ask whether you'd be interested in taking on a new project)

  3. hint to yourself about what you should focus on or what you/your org values (e.g., "senior" implies mentorship/stewardship, "reliability" or "performance" or "happiness" tells you what goal to focus on, "researcher" or "manager" or "analyst" or "nurturer" tells you what methods/skillsets you should be employing) -- this should be Part Of A Complete Breakfast, I mean, Job Description

Some people find that job titles do not matter to them. I posit that those people believe, or act as though they believe, that it is unimportant to provide additional easily-graspable metadata about their own work-selves to strangers or colleagues (I could imagine lots of reasons that this would feel unimportant) -- or that they already know what they need to be working on and do not need additional guidance-reminders.

In the current US software industry, sometimes you run across deliberately informal titles - God/Guru/Ninja/Wizard/Grunt/Thing-doer/Goddess/Mistress/etc. I don't quite feel up to the task of laying out the particular signals one THINKS one is sending, and the signals one actually IS sending, with those job titles. This feels like Kate Losse territory. Here, as with so many other human relationships, you might run into the very natural desire to make a joke out of it to elide all the tension and status play. And I understand that. When I got married, Leonard and I had a HARD TIME getting used to the words "husband" and "wife"! To ease into them, we mispronounced them or banged them together with other words, so, e.g., he was a "funband" and I was a "funwife". I feel like new formal job titles can be like that too, uncomfortable, like "one size fits all" clothes.

Sometimes silly job titles signal to others, "we value whimsy/insider cliquishness more than we value clear communication about tasks and roles with people outside our internal culture."

So if someone dismissively says that job titles don't matter, I suggest you tack on a silent "to them right now" when you interpret their statement.

Edited on 6 Feb 2018 to add: I said some of this stuff better in my post today, The Ambition Taboo As Dark Matter.


14 Jul 2014, 12:57 p.m.

So job titles are a social API? And joke job titles are like giving your programming interface goofy/obfuscatory function/method names?

Grant Gould
14 Jul 2014, 14:20 p.m.

Two companies I've worked for have done the simple, flat Bell Labs-style "Member of Technical Staff" title for everyone in software engineering. It has serious downsides ("tyrrany of structurelessness", I hear the cry go out!) but I feel like it definitely empowered me in, eg, stepping to fill in for an absent manager for a few weeks, or joining the architects meeting without any formal change of roles.

My current company rotates most engineers between jobs every quarter, so job titles would be a bit silly. I'm "Senior Software Engineer" because it's less trouble than "Wears All of the Hats Some of the Time and Some of the Hats All of the Time".

My token experience with fully specified job titles (eg, Oracle's meticulously specified "U5 -- Senior Associate Consulting Engineer" nonsense, which was really a salary band dressed up in job title clothes) has led me to believe that those sorts of titles often convey the illusion of specificity without the reality, and are worse than nothing.<br/>

14 Jul 2014, 16:51 p.m.

One good example: there's a huge difference in expectations and responsibilities between "team lead" and "architect".

14 Jul 2014, 18:31 p.m.

I believe job titles don't matter, because in medium/large companies they seem to be assigned by HR to fit the appropriate bucket rather than a description of what you actually do.

Unfortunately there is also a difference between "team lead" and "team lead". Some places use that term to mean "line manager who is too junior to be given the title of 'manager' to due the implications it has" and other to mean "member of the team who happens to approve people's leave and so on".

I've worked a place where "senior" simply meant you'd been doing the job for over three years.

<br/>I believe job titles could be useful if people used them consistently, but they don't. I'm pretty sure there are some standards for them, but like anything there are multiple standards. The American company I work for in Australia uses terms completely differently to the Australian company I used to work for.

Sumana Harihareswara
14 Jul 2014, 19:28 p.m.

Grant, the note about flexibility is interesting. Let me also point out that "Senior Software Engineer" is a title, and that it's a title that says "I'm technical." Signalling whether a person actually has domain knowledge or not really does make a difference.

James, you're making the classic mistake of thinking that lossy signals don't count as signals.

15 Jul 2014, 15:22 p.m.

I have no or silly title because I've worked in consulting for too long. Here "Senior Whatever" is an entry level title. All you're saying is fine if people where actually took things seriously instead of put titles on their employees to make them look good to prospect clients. I'm also used to my job title changing for every meeting in the past. I'm now actually "senior" enough to be entitled to wear a silly title (which I think is silly, so I usually have no or really plain title, eg. Software Engineer, instead unless I'm going to meet people who have obviously inflated their titles).