Securing Yourself a Better Title
Tonight marked the vice-presidential debate and the start of the baseball playoffs. With two spectator sports on television, I thought I’d draw some inspiration and answer a reader question about office politics. This question came to me from a reader whose problem tracks back (in my opinion) to need for a better job title. And it came in lengthy format, checking in about 1,100 words!
For the sake of both poster anonymity and brevity, I will summarize with as little information loss as possible. My summary is as follows.
I finished a CS degree and took an entry level position. From there, I took a job that involved writing code — automation around Selenium to be used by a QA group for testing. I believe this mimics the role of Google’s “Software Engineer in Test.” That said, the conferred upon me the title of “QA Engineer.”
For two years, I enjoyed the development work in this role and made inroads toward an advancement. Before that happened, however, my company shuffled departments, and I found myself in a new part of the company, under a new boss. This new boss only saw me for my title, rendering my progress moot.
I approached him about my situation and he agreed to put me on a more classic development team, but on a “probationary” basis. He said that he’d consider a formal change in six months if I could work on defects and get my fix rate up to a certain number per week. Six months later, at a review, he said that I had made definite progress, but that my rate of X per week was just not QUITE high enough and that we could talk again next year at performance review time.
What are my options? What should I do next? I feel that I’ve now fallen behind people of a similar, salary-wise, and I feel stuck in a rut.
Let me start by offering a quick bit of context. Recruiters and people offering you jobs with bad titles will tell you that titles don’t matter. Don’t listen to recruiters and people offering you bad titles because titles do matter.
They matter because a job title counts as what I’ll call passive bargaining material. When you navigate the waters of your career, you will have negotiation points where you look for more salary or benefits or whatever. The actual negotiating constitutes the active component of this dance, and that matters. But so does the passive portion: your previous/current title, salary, benefits, etc.
Don’t believe me? If you’re a developer, cold-apply to a bunch of dev manager or director gigs. No responses? Try adding a fictitious 5 year stint as “Director of Software Engineering” to the top and try again. Bet you get at least a few calls.
Teachable Moment 1: The Original Offer
This next point comes from a place of empathy because I blew this not once, but twice in my career. And, while it won’t help you right now, it will help you in subsequent career situations. Under no (okay, few) circumstances should you accept an offer with a lesser title because “it’s a great opportunity” (or whatever).
I understand the allure because, as I said, I have walked this path. The offer seems great and you’re not sure other opportunities will present themselves. Well, the offer is not great and other opportunities will present themselves. Resist the impulse to give in here. Negotiate with a hard line stance for the title you want. Organizations may not cave during negotiations, but there’s a decent chance they will, since they’ll see it as a viable alternative to doling out more money.
If you want a software developer position, don’t take a “junior software assistant” position in which you do (or don’t do) software development. Hold out for the title.
Teachable Moment 2: The Reorg
A second knee point stands out in this narrative. In contrast to the first, your company initiated this one, and it occurred during the department shuffling. You lost a boss that knew you and gained one that didn’t. Don’t let that first boss go without extracting some value!
During two years under boss number one’s tenure, you developed professionally and made strides. This boss likely valued your work and had a reward in mind for you. New boss doesn’t know you from Adam.
Once you get word of a shakeup like this, go to your soon to be former boss and ask for help securing a promotion during this transition. The absolute worst outcome of this is the boss says, “meh, nah, I’m busy.” He’s gone in 2 weeks anyway, so even if he views your request as an affront to his dignity or something, he’ll have better things to do than find ways to extract revenge on you from afar.
More likely, he’ll thoughtfully consider your words and say, “yeah, you’re right — tell you what — I’ll do X for you.” Maybe he writes a glowing recommendation or a note to his successor saying that he was about to promote you. Maybe he finds a way to actually promote you. It will probably be something, and anything would have been better than the clean slate with new boss.
Understand the Lay of the Land
Alright, on to current state. From here on in, I’ll use terminology defined on this blog and expanded upon in my upcoming book. “You were oh-so-close, try again next year” epitomizes the “corporation as professor grading students” trope. Budget-minded opportunists manipulate idealists into feeding this crap to pragmatists, under the assumption that the pragmatist will say, “gosh, shucks, I hope it goes better in a year when we next think about my career.”
When you hear “you were so close, but you just need to improve a little,” the governing opportunist has a different message for those who know how to listen. “You have zero leverage. Come back if you manage to scrounge some up. Or, we’ll talk again when HR forces me to change your title and give you a 5% raise in a few years.”
You might be tempted to do internet research, where you’ll find advice pieces with titles like, “How to Ask Your Boss for a Title Change.” You’ll hear what you might expect. That particular one advises, “compile a list of achievements” and “make a list of reasons you deserve the title.”
You will dutifully compile those lists, poring carefully over them. You’ll schedule the meeting with your boss and sweat for 20 minutes before it starts. Your boss will start the meeting five minutes late, while you stand there, waiting awkwardly, your sweat now visible. Nearly breathless with nerves, you’ll sit down, babble your reasons out immediately and without preamble, and wait for his response.
He’ll say, “that was cute, but you still have no leverage; go away.”
Okay, he won’t actually say that. He’ll nod sympathetically, give you some praise, take it under advisement, and vow to follow up. Eventually he’ll tell you that HR just doesn’t let these things happen outside of the normal channels. Sorry, his hands are tied (and you still have no leverage).
I’ll offer my thoughts for specific action in a second, but you need to understand the larger context under which this occurs. If you want that title (and raise), you need to find some leverage. When the idealist (or opportunist above him) ponders the question, “what bad thing would happen if I didn’t give this person a better title,” the answer needs to be something other than “nothing.”
If we’re being honest, the answer vis a vis people who read pieces on “How to Ask Your Boss for a Title Change” usually takes the form of “that person will annoy me endlessly for years.” And while you can make irritating persistence your leverage, that’s pretty career-limiting, and it makes you insufferable.
The good soldier answer is to find ways to make yourself indispensable to your team and to your boss. Pulled off, this has the best mid-term effect on your reputation, and your leverage becomes “this person is too important to take for granted.” Trouble here is that this is a long play and very subjective. I’d scratch this.
The most common play here is to create the threat of departure and gap. You can do this through leveraging a competing offer, implying a competing offer, or simply saying that it won’t make sense for you to continue in your current role. This tends to provoke a response, but it spikes your risk level. This isn’t for the faint of heart.
Use Subtle Leverage
Personally, what I’d suggest here involves a more subtle touch. You’ll notice that I’ve really made this post all about title, even though the reader question solicits general career advice (better pay, title, situation, etc). I do this for a reason. Specifically, title presents itself as the first bottleneck. The title out of sync with responsibilities has a stranglehold on the other concerns.
So, let’s fix the title, and only the title.
Grab a few minutes of your boss’s time and offer him a proposition. Tell him that you’d really like the recognition commensurate with the work that you’re doing, but you recognize the risk presented to him. Offer to forgo any compensation increases for the next couple of years in exchange for a developer title. Now, you’ve manufactured a bit of leverage.
To the idealist boss (and perhaps even his opportunist boss), you probably look like a sucker. You’re asking for a value-less perk in exchange for voluntary waiving of real value. They might even take pity on you, in light of how badly you obviously want it — literally putting your money where your mouth is. But you have leverage, now. You’re offering them a couple years of below market labor that will be budget-neutral to them.
Once they agree, immediately change the job title on your resume from “QA Engineer” to “Software Developer” and let it ride back to the time that you started with the company. You have, after all, been developing software for the last two years. Now, you’ve gone, in one fell swoop, from having limited prospects to being a software developer with a few years’ experience and modest salary demands. You’ll have more recruiter voicemails starting with, “yo dudebro, this company has ping pong tables,” than you ever wanted to hear.
A Closing Philosophical Note
Sometimes my own cynicism depresses me a bit. I wanted to write a post about this in which I came around to fighting the good fight at Acme Inc, sticking it out and proving them all wrong by proving yourself. But I simply cannot write that as career advice in good conscience. So, I won’t.
I earnestly hope that we can start fixing corporate culture to be something other than a zero sum game between employees and employers. But, until we do, you have to ask yourself whether you want to operate in your best interests or in theirs. Because only fleetingly and situationally are those two things the same.
So when you do go find that next job, bear this optimistic cynicism in mind. You will not find long term alignment, but you can do your best for long term fit. Don’t agree to terms that will make you resent your next organization, even if it feels uncomfortable to pass on offers with bad comp, bad titles, and bad treatment of the staff at the place. Be judicious when searching, even if you resent your current situation (another mistake I’ve made in the past). Look for a place that you can help and that can help you for a while, and try to do right by them.
Thanks for the article, I’ve recently gone through a similar situation (I’m no longer working at that company) and I’m wondering if anyone has some thoughts. I was a developer for a few years, I had made myself invaluable but I had expressed my dissatisfaction so my boss was afraid I was going to leave (per the article this should be a good situation right?), however it seemed I still had no leverage. Was my boss just an idiot and didn’t recognize that I was invaluable? or did he realize that by not giving me the promotion he was making… Read more »
I’d say there are tons of ways you could wind up lacking leverage, even with the threat of leaving. Could be the boss doesn’t have the authority to make decisions about retention, and boss’s boss doesn’t care (or even is fine with the department shrinking). Boss could be an idiot and not realize departure ramifications. Boss could be checked out and apathetic. Etc. I have seen situations where people didn’t want to dole out better titles or pay increases out of concern that the employees would become more marketable. But in my experience, people who think like that are fairly… Read more »
Thanks for your reply Erik. Most of the blogs I follow are related to the technical details of programming, I find your articles are more centered around how to run a software team/company and I find them very insightful, thank you.
I’m glad if you find it helpful. These days a lot more of my work is IT management consulting, so these sorts of things are at the tip of my fingers more often than code. I try to strike a balance when I can.
Erik, Thank you for addressing this! I wonder if this is a common situation for early-career developers. At least, it happened to me. In retrospect, it was a bizarre situation. I had interviewed for a job of “Test Engineer”, but the one the offered me was “Test Technician”. The work was clearly engineering work, the pay was okay, this was when the economy was near it’s bottom, and I was younger and foolisher, so I didn’t force the issue. That was a mistake. What actually got me out of the situation was similar to what you suggest, but a little… Read more »
I generally agree with your risk assessment in terms of the application process. It’s unlikely that they’d get too worked up about (or even notice) ambiguity over title, provided it wasn’t egregious.
The thing I’d be careful with, though, is what it means for you during the course of your employment. If they were later to dig up some kind of discrepancy like this, it would give them cause for termination, if they so desired.
Erik, Thank you so much for the response! I suppose there is a small risk that somebody who was desperate to get me fired would comb through every last detail of my career history looking for any ammunition to use against me. I know I’ve seen one or two news stories about executives being canned over similar issues. But, the very fact that such incidents make the news makes me think that it is vanishingly unlikely for most people. I think a much more important question would be, is it ethical? Is it in keeping with honest good character to… Read more »
True, I don’t imagine the risk to be high, though I’m also pretty risk averse. I, personally, don’t like the thought of anything hanging over my head, however unlikely to affect me. As for the ethical question, I struggle with that. The whole resume/interview process seems absurd to me. So I think ethically it’s hard for me to want to green light anything that can be construed as misrepresenting yourself, but on the other hand, it sort of seems like a company is derelict in its selection process if the wording of a previous title is the difference between a… Read more »
Erik, Thank you so much for the response! I suppose there is a small risk that somebody who was desperate to get me fired would comb through every last detail of my career history looking for any ammunition to use against me. I know I’ve seen one or two news stories about executives being canned over similar matters. But, the very fact that such incidents make the news makes me think that it is vanishingly unlikely for most people. I think a much more important question would be, is it ethical? Is it in keeping with honest good character to… Read more »