Eli Weinstock-Herman

Setting Developer Titles

March 18, 2019 ▪ management posts
Photo: Thors Hammer by Martyn Jones, CC BY 3.0

Titles are hard.

A Senior Developer in one organization might be a Staff Engineer, a Senior Platform Specialist, and Senior Developer II in three others.

Some folks see this and immediately think, "This is easy, why isn't it standardized?!"

It turns out that creating one title scheme to serve all companies and organizations is pretty complicated. What's more, when you create a system of titles in a single company, a lot of those same complexities show back up as people apply their own personal expectations to them.

Why defining titles is hard

Like most problems, ultimately the issue with titles is that we haven't even defined the problem and we're already assuming there must be an easy solution.

Here's an exercise:

Take a moment to think about your own title:

  • How do you introduce yourself to people, professionally?
  • Does it match your LinkedIn profile?
  • Do you know (or have you heard) of anyone with the same title that is terrible at what they do?
  • Conversely, have you met or heard of anyone with the same title that is amazing at what they do?
  • Does it reflect your past experience or your current responsibilities?
  • Are you proud of it? Is your significant other, parent, neighbor?

Imagine asking your coworkers those same questions, what would you get? Probably a completely different set of answers.

Even in a small group, you can hear a lot of perspectives on what the job title signifies, how it is used, or why people have feelings about a specific one.

Some Perspectives...

Here are some of the expectations I could remember running into in teams I've managed.

"My title..."

  • Defines my responsibilities in a company
  • Defines an expected skillset I have
  • Defines expectations the company has for me
  • Is one step in a defined progression path (growth opportunity)
  • Reflects a general skillset that is used for setting salary
  • Reflects a level of progression or achievement in my career
  • Reflects a level of progression or achievement within a company
  • Reflects a level of trust/responsibility from my company
  • Communicates expertise to an audience or future employer
  • Communicates respect to customers and prospects
  • Attracts the best candidates to a job
  • Inspires and uplifts people (1)
(1) Interesting "Academy of Management Journal" article:
Job Titles as Identity Badges: How Self-Reflective Titles Can Reduce Emotional Exhaustion (pdf)

And what's worse, the very words we choose could have different connotations to both the person with the title and the person reading or hearing it. "Junior", "Senior", "Principal", "Staff" are all common terms we see in titles, and yet they carry different meanings depending on individuals' past experiences.

The Next Problem

Even if you identify a subset of the goals above to address with your titles, you still have the next problem: people.

People are the ones that were asking all of those questions. Whil we attempt to solve one set of those questions, they will each bring their own combination, based on their own experience, drives, and needs.

So not only would we have to have a clear understanding ourselves, we have to be able to communicate that understanding to folks AND do so in a way that doesn't degrade over time as they see their needs addressed via titles elsewhere in the industry. Which conjures images of Sisyphus and his rock.

It's Actually Not About Titles

So here's the thing: very little of this is actually about titles.

Titles are the tool we're using to bluntly solve a number of the needs above. They are all problems that need solutions, but they have differing importance to differing folks.

Whether we are trying to address an undefined set of needs or a well-defined subset of the ones above, we are still leaving gaps that folks will attribute to the titles.

What we really need to do is skip the titles and address the needs.

Deconstruct the problem

Nobody is actually asking for a title, they're asking for an effect they think the title will cause. Instead of trying to solve the problm of crafting one title to evoke all possible effects, break it down.

Instead of canvassing the crowd or sitting in a dark room and waiting for epiphany, we probably ought to be treating this like any complex requirements problem. If we deconstruct the neds we're hearing from people (and ourselves), it should be a lot easier to attack them individually.

Here are some examples:

"Customer calls are smoother when they know they're on the phone with an expert"

Are there better ways than titles to introduce an employee or coworker?

"This is Joe, a key engineer that leads implementations of X and has helped Y customers like you achieve Z"

"Customers realize we're taking them seriously when a decision maker responds"

Instead of relying on a title (that they may not nuderstand in the first place), why not coach folks to introduce themselves and relevant level of responsibility?

"Hi, I'm Joe X and I'm the lead for (thing that is causing you concern now). I can help solve this and have direct access to relevant executives and team members to make it happen"

"What if our team members aren't empowered to that level?"

How would a title help? At some point the customer is going to see through the charade and either need to see actual decisions occur, or a competitor demo. A title or intro can hep get the foot in the door, empowered decision-making is a topic for a different day.

We want to evaluate pay against the market

Titles won't solve this, they'll only give you the impression that you've solved it.

There are a lot of good resources out there on building compensation strategies (and I have several draft posts on the topic). This is another case of "if it were really that easy, it wouldn't be the source of so many discussions".

"I want recognition that I'm progressing"

(and I want my coworkers, family, etc to see it)

A title change can provide a good signal for progression, but title is not the only way to signal that progression and it's likely to be a pretty poor way. What if you had achievement awards that people received (and could list on their resume) as they progressed or added value to the company? Or a seperate description that could be used to indicate their expertise in an area?

... and so on ...

Wrapping Up

Titles are hard to solve because (1) they are people problems, and (2) we try to solve far too many problems with one tool, and (3) we haven't defined the problems we're trying to solve.

In many cases, we also haven't bothered to solve those problems at all, treating it like an engineering problem and assuming we cna find one clever hack that will somehow solve all of them at once.

So:

  1. It's not actually about titles, it's about the outcome we hope the titles will generate
  2. Titles are not universal, so creating one system will always fail
  3. Break the desired outcomes down and solve them individually

Use the questions above as a starting point, or build a new set with input from your team and organization. Address those, with or without titles, and you'll solve the root need.

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