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Job Titles: Be Like The Wolf

I lied… kinda. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about job titles and said that I’d probably conclude the post the following week. But then I got sidetracked by shiny new topics and failed in that quest. Then there were the holidays and all that, so things got complicated. It’s time now to get back to business and finish up.

Last time around, I dissected the nature of the job title and then left on kind of an “Empire Strikes Back” note. I talked about the evils of the job title as an institution and then admitted to embracing it. I then implied that there would be Ewoks and fireworks in the next post as I talked about how I’d refine my own title and what I might do if I were king of an organization for a day. So, here it goes with that, starting with my royal decree.

The Panic, The Vomit

I mostly try to stay away from political issues in my blog, so I’ll try to keep this segue minimally provocative. I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that the US domestic policy known as “the War on Drugs” has been a resounding success. According to and taking at face value an article I located with about three seconds of googling, the US war on drugs, as of 2010, had cost the country a trillion dollars and appears not to have made any difference whatsoever in the rate of drug use in the US. If this really were a war, I’d say that the drugs are winning decisively.

That’s not to say that I have any real policy ideas for alleviating societal problems caused by drug abuse. I just have the starkly simple idea that we should maybe stop paying for something that doesn’t work. If I were paying $200 per month to the gas company so that I could heat my home and the heat didn’t work, I’d probably just stop paying the gas company. Heating my house is a different problem, but I can at least stop wasting $200 per month. The main opposition to this is essentially, “the house may be cold, but think how much colder it’d be if we weren’t paying that $200 per month!” Or, “sure, drug abuse is still rampant, but think of how much more rampant it’d be if we hadn’t spent all of this money!” Generally speaking, the reasoning is that the status quo isn’t great, but altering it could result in devastating consequences.

The reason that I’ve treated you to this extended segue (digression) is that the “this doesn’t seem to work so let’s stop it” approach is what I’d do with job titles. The counterargument I’ve described is the one I’ve received. “Sure, having titles like ‘Senior Dynamic Regional Strategist Fellow’ is a sub-optimal practice, but just think of the corporate chaos that would result from not having them.” Remember, though, I’m corporate king for a day. So, let’s just not have them.

Really?!

Or actually, instead of that, let’s just let you pick your title. The organization doesn’t have any officially sanctioned titles or anything like that, so it’s up to you what you want to call yourself. You want to be CEO? Great! Put it on your business card and hand it out! Though it’ll certainly be awkward for you when you have to explain why, in spite of that title, you have to clear anything you do with your boss the “Software Director.” The obvious worry is that brazen careerists would give themselves wildly inappropriate titles for the sake of advancement. But would they really? Would they give themselves titles like “Senior Executive Vice President of Awesomeness” when it was common public knowledge that said title was of their own creation? I kind of doubt it, but even if they did, who cares?

After all, someone still with the company would be accountable for performance. Picking a title that grossly misrepresents your authority to external (or internal) stakeholders would certainly create performance problems that would need to be addressed and resolved. “Hey Bill, this whole thing where you explain to prospective clients that you’re the CEO is confusing them and is costing you sales. And since selling corporate licenses is your main responsibility, that seems to be a problem.” And if it were someone that had left the company, title embellishment would be an equal nonstarter.

Reference Checker: “Can you confirm that Bill worked for you as CEO?”
Reference Provider: “Yes.”
Reference Checker: “What were his responsibilities?”
Reference Provider: “Cleaning the floors, emptying the garbage, etc.”
Reference Checker: “The CEO did janitorial work?”
Reference Provider: “Yeah. I mean, we let people choose their titles, so I wouldn’t put too much stake in the ‘CEO’ thing.”

With this level of organizational transparency, chicanery would be a pretty dicey proposition even if people tried, and I strongly suspect that they wouldn’t really try. I think the net result would be that people would give themselves titles that explained succinctly what value they provided to the organization. People would give themselves titles like “Software Engineer” or “Javascript Dev” or maybe even “Techie” or “Code Warrior.” Someone might come along and say, “I’m a Senior Code Warrior,” but I think you’d find that such a title would start to weigh heavily on someone who wasn’t a natural thought leader. There’d be a lot of social pressure not to self-aggrandize, and if the group wasn’t enamored of the “Senior Code Warrior”‘s chops, people would start saying things like, “Yup, he promoted himself to senior to make up for not being good at solving problems” or perhaps even “at this org, ‘senior’ means ‘mommy didn’t hug me enough.'”

In effect, titles would be principally only the first (and least cynical) of the things I mentioned in the previous post: functional identifiers and responsibility indicators. Sticking acronyms or certs on the end of your title would just make you seem like a blowhard and social pressure would stop that. Consolation prize and status token would be irrelevant because it would be common knowledge that your title was your own valuation of yourself rather than that of the organization. Pecking order location might be relevant here and there, but only in situations in which someone accepted an honorific title conferred upon him/her by peers who were moved by respect. So, inasmuch as pecking order locator titles appeared, you could really take them to the bank — a “Senior Code Warrior” wouldn’t say “this is a woman that’s been here for a while” but rather “this is a woman whose peers respect her so much that they basically peer-pressured her into taking a title that gives her the respect that is her due.”

Titles in this hypothetical organization would be simplified — stripped of almost all loaded meaning and pared down to what the person in question perceived his or her mandate to be. And isn’t that really what we want to understand from a title across the board?

In My World

So if I were a person at this hypothetical organization, what would my title be? I guess it’d be “King,” since the premise is “how would title work if I were king for a day?” But, let’s say I weren’t. In that case, I could easily demur and say that it would depend entirely on what my responsibilities were, and that’s a real concern. But “what would my ideal title be” goes well beyond the notion that I’m in some set role at an organization and I get to figure out what to call that role. It gets into what I’d like to do with my life.

DevSkills

I’ve had some idle conversations about this subject here and there over the last few months. I’ve gone into business for myself, doing various freelance activities. Then I began an extended traveling engagement where I was initially “coaching” software developers to help them raise the quality of their code. This gradually morphed into work that was some amount of management consulting. Then it morphed again into work that involved helping spin up and lead a team charged with delivering software. That was a lot of morphing. I talked to a colleague and partner in crime about this at one point and asked “how would you title the work that we’re doing here?”

Neither of us had a satisfactory answer to the question. I became a bit philosophical, thinking of how people in my travels would ask me what I do for a living. I’d pause, in the middle of all this morphing, not knowing exactly what to say. It’d usually be shady-vague, like “I’m in software,” but if I tried to be less vague, it’d be confusing and silly, like, “I go into organizations and help them do gap analysis on their approach to software and then provide suggestions for how to improve, but if the situation calls for it, I’ll also write some code or run a team, or really whatever is needed.” My friend and I joked that it’d be easier to say, “I’m like the wolf in Pulp Fiction.” For those not familiar, the wolf is a character that marches into a disastrous situation in which other characters are panicked, and he calmly presents solutions that are by and large common sense. We got a lot of laughs at lunch one day when he suggested that we print business cards that just had our names on them and said, “I’m Like The Wolf.”

What I’ve actually settled on, at the recommendation of another friend, is “I’m a consultant.” It’s technically true, it’s communicative, and it cuts out most of the status and pecking-order pap that surrounds your average job title. But it’s not ultimately very satisfying. To get to satisfying, we need to consult the wolf, who introduces himself by saying, “I’m Winston Wolfe; I solve problems.” That’s it — that’s the ticket, and that’s what I do. I solve problems.

I’ve had a pretty wide range of titles, and none of them are as satisfying in my rearview mirror as they were when I aspired to them. Software engineer, senior software engineer, senior consultant, architect, founder, principal, and even chief information officer were all titles that at one time I thought would define me and prove my worth and mettle. Even for my LLC, I was pretty sure I needed “Founder and Principal” as my functional identifier. But in the end they were all reduced to antiseptic bargaining chips in whatever job offer or engagement that I negotiated next. They designated rank, pecking order, and status — but not utility. Below each, I needed lines, paragraphs, or even pages on a resume to explain my value and what I did.

I’m not going to print any business cards that say, “Erik Dietrich: I’m Like the Wolf.” But I can take his no-nonsense approach to describing his value. If you’d like to know my ideal job description, it’d be “I’m Erik Dietrich and I solve problems.” If you’d like to know my ideal title, it’d be “Erik Dietrich, Problem Solver.”

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Geoff Mazeroff
Guest
Parts of this post reminded me of a recent Freakonomics Radio episode where one economist used the term “homo rivalis” — it’s not that we’re the best at something, we just need to be better than the next person. I agree that it’s frustrating when inflated titles are used for posturing in the workplace. It’s interesting that you mentioned Winston Wolfe, because one of the developers in the Knoxville, TN area (where I live) had that as the tag-line for his blog (“The Winston Wolfe of software.”); he’s since changed his Twitter bio to “Evolutionary BadAss”, so there’s that. :-/… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

Your colleague brings to mind a consideration that wasn’t really on my radar, which is one-man-show marketing. I would assume that sort of self-aggrandizing title is aimed at catching the attention of prospective clients, which is something that I simply hadn’t thought of in my last post.

I need to catch up on Freakonomics — I’m still listening to episodes from mid-fall.

Geoff Mazeroff
Guest

I’m just curious what kind of clientele is attracted to such marketing. I find it boastful, but that’s just my opinion. If it gets him business, it’s proven to be successful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (and Happy New Year’s!).

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Wouldn’t be my cup of tea, either. But then again, I’d never be confused with a marketing expert by any stretch, and I only grudgingly engage in any kind of promotion of stuff I do.
And, Happy New Year to you, too!

Fixer
Guest

I like Fixer or Box Cutter but the second one may take either some thinking or explanation. Hint: Helps you get outside of something…

Erik Dietrich
Guest

How about “Box Burner?” Easy to get outside of the box if you just burn the box 🙂