You have a job and it has a name. A name of convenience. It exists so that when someone asks, “What do you do?” you can simply say, “I am a software engineer” rather than saying, “Well, there are these things called computers and computers run software and humans write software and I am one of those humans”.
Chances are, you also have a title. It was given to you when you first arrived at your fine company and you probably didn’t think about it. You argued for more salary or more stock, but the title was just there — Sr. Software Engineer 2. You didn’t think about where the title came from or the fact that it defined your compensation and promotion path for the duration of your stay with the company.
You didn’t think a lot about title because you didn’t really have a choice. The decision to create titles happened long before you were there, but you still need to understand why titles are toxic.
On the Origin of Titles
When a company is small, everyone does a little bit of everything, so titles make no sense. My first title at Netscape was “Bitsifter”. Sure, there were some titles, but they were titles of convenience so external parties could apply their antiquated title frameworks to folks on our team during meetings. “Oh, I see, you’re the VP of Product… how very impressive.”
The unspoken agreement was that these titles were necessary to map to a dimwitted external reality where someone would look at a business card and apply an immediate judgement on ability based on title. It’s absurd when you think about it - the fact that I’d hand you a business card that read “VP” and you’d leap to the immediate assumption: “Since his title is VP, he must be important. I should be talking to him”. I understand this is how a lot of the world works, but it’s precisely this type of reasoning that makes titles toxic. They didn’t start out toxic. They started out as a means to give folks a path towards growth.
The Leadership Path
When your company gets a little larger, when the team has been on board for more than a few years, you need to give folks a growth path. There are two paths that need definition. I’m going to define these relative to software engineering, but my gut feeling is that these paths are similar for many types of jobs.
The first track created is the lead or management track, and this shows up first organically out of necessity because there are too many of you. At 25 people you could keep everyone on the same page because each person was able to maintain state with each other person. The leadership track shows up so that communication and decisions can be sensibly organized.
This is a major development for a growing company because this might be the first title arriving. Lead or manager, whatever you call it, the question is the same: is it a job or a title? A job is a well-defined thing that has a clear and easy to understand set of responsibilities. A title often has neither.
A good way to explain this is to imagine the poor use of titles in Toxic Title Douchebag World. In this imaginary world, the first five hires after the founders have given themselves impressive sounding titles. VP of Business Development or Director of Advanced Technology. If you’re employee #34 and someone is walking around the building calling themselves the SVP of Platform Engineering, you might be in Toxic Title Douchebag World.
I’m not suggesting that this is not an accomplished person. I’m not saying that they don’t have a wealth of experience or fantastic ideas, but never in my life have I ever stared at a fancy title and immediately understood the person’s value. It took time. I spent time with those people — we debated, we discussed, we disagreed — and only then did I decide: “This guy… he really knows his stuff. I have much to learn.” In Toxic Title Douchebag World, titles are designed to document the value of an individual sans proof. They are designed to create an unnecessary social hierarchy based on ego.
When that first title shows up for your first leader, ask yourself: does this title reflect a job I consider to be real and of obvious value? If the answer is anything other than a resounding yes, your titles might be toxic.
The People Path
Let’s say you’ve avoided Toxic Title Douchebag World when the leadership titles landed. Let’s make the big assumption that everyone sees leadership jobs as equivalent to any other jobs. Congratulations. There’s more opportunity for toxicity forthcoming.
The second growth path that needs to be defined is harder than the leadership path because of the inherent difficulty in defining the jobs. The forcing function for leadership was driven by a need to improve efficiency, communication, and accountability. The forcing function for the People Path is growth.
You likely didn’t define the Leadership Path out of a need to grow your people; you did it to scale your company. The fact that this new job is seen as a promotion is a happy byproduct of the job’s existence. Problem is, the majority of your company is never going to be managers, but they want to grow, too.
This is where a critical mistake is usually made. The folks who successfully landed the lead title think, “Well, when we needed leaders we called them leads, so why don’t we create new titles for folks to give them the same sense of promotion and advancement.”
No no no no and no. To understand how this breaks down, let’s head back to Toxic Title Douchebag World.
In this world, our SVP of Talent looks at his 119 employes and 17 leads and thinks, “Well, the folks who are the most cranky are the engineers who have been here the longest, so I’ll do what I did at my former company — I’ll create titles: Associate Engineer, Engineer, Senior Engineer, Staff Engineer, and Architect.”
By themselves, these titles are not completely toxic. It’s the process by which the SVP of Talent assigns these titles. Here are a few samples of his increasingly flawed reasoning:
If you don’t have blinding teeth-grinding rage after reading those three bullets, I’ll put you over the edge. This isn’t really Toxic Title Douchebag World: this is your world. This grim, poorly defined decision process has heralded the arrival of a lot of title systems that you’re living with right now.
Now, those who designed and deployed titles don’t intend to do harm. They are, hopefully, intending to build a rational system for growth, but what they don’t account for is that…
You are a Beautiful Snowflake
How do you compare two engineers with equivalent years of experience? Comparing their years on the job is an easy empirical comparison and it’s not a crazy assumption that someone with more years on the job has more refined skills. But can you quantitatively measure those skills? No.
Phil and Felix both have four years of experience. Both have worked on the same team and the same project, but Phil works so much better with people, whereas Felix is happier hiding in the shadows and working on well sequestered projects. Felix is world-class at measuring performance, whereas it appears Phil doesn’t really know how to add. However, Phil is a steady, leveling voice during times of crisis where your impression is that Felix wouldn’t mind if it all burned to the ground.
You need both of these guys, but there is no one title which describes both of them. Phil’s title should be Humble Math-Addled Keeper of the Peace whereas Felix would be The Dark Lord of Performance and Snark. Their jobs are clearly as engineers, but defining a single title is a slippery exercise in comparing two things that are incomparable.
The main problem with systems of titles is that people are erratic, chaotic messes who learn at different paces and in different ways. They can be good at or terrible at completely different things, even while doing more or less the same job. A title has no business attempting to capture the seemingly infinite ways by which individuals evolve. They are imprecise frameworks used to measure the masses. To allow leadership to bucket individuals into convenient chunks so they can award compensation and measure seniority while also serving as labels that are somehow expected to give us an idea about expected ability. This is an impossibly tall order and at the root of title toxicity.
When Felix learns that he’s a Senior Engineer and Phil is a Staff Engineer, he loses his shit. Why? Because he perceives his value as performance engineer extraordinaire as significantly more valuable than Phil’s value as a guy who just gets along with people. Titles place an absolute professional value on individuals, where the reality is that you are a collection of skills of varying ability. Some are your super power, some are your Achilles heels, and none are clearly defined by a title.
R.I.P. Business Cards, Resumes, and Titles
Business cards are dead. Yes, I feel bad when I’m at a conference and someone hands me their gorgeous business card and looks expectantly for mine. Sorry, I don’t have one. Well, I do. You’re looking at it right now. It doesn’t fit in your wallet, but it saves a little bit of a tree and has vastly more information than a business card.
Resumes, in their current form, I hope, are not far behind. It’s convenient to have a brief overview of someone’s career when we sit down to interview, but more often than not, when I’m interviewing you, I’m searching Google for more substance. Do you have any sort of digital footprint? A weblog? A GitHub repository? It’s these types of artifacts that give me the beginning of insight into who you are. It’s by no means a complete picture, but it’s far more revealing than a bunch of tweets stitched together in a resume.
Titles, I believe, are an artifact of the same age that gave us business cards and resumes. They came from a time when information was scarce. When there was no other way to discover who you were other than what you shared via a resume. Where the title of Senior Software Engineer was intended to define your entire career to date.
This is one of those frustrating articles where I gnash my teeth furiously about a problem, but don’t offer a concrete solution because I haven’t solved for this problem and I’m wondering if anyone else has. I believe there is a glimmer of a good idea regarding gauging and annoucing ability in ideas like Open Badges but the burden of progress is a two-way street.
For a leader of humans, it’s your responsibility to push your folks into uncomfortable situations where they’ll learn, document, and recognize their accomplishments, and help them recover from the failures as quickly as possible.
For the individual, it’s about continually finding new jobs. In my career, I’ve been a student, a QA engineer, an engineer, a manager, and a writer. Each job is a path I’ve chosen. I’ve had much support along the way, but, more importantly, I’ve never been content to be complacent, nor ever believed there weren’t more jobs to be discovered, and always knowing that I’m more than a title.
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