The Designer Straitjacket
My Thoughts on Job Titles' Impact
Both the pursuit of better fitting and superior titles as well as considering one’s own title as a scope of responsibility is a significant downside to innovation and collaboration. Thus, we get part of the crowd without making use of our strengths and traits which can affect both our personal career and the company. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons — comfort first — we are attached to titles. Let’s get to the bottom of this.
Setting the Context
As you may have noticed, I often use my private life and job as an inspiration for the articles, also in this case. Recently, there was a thread beneath Tierney Cyren’s tweet that links and delimits different roles within Developer Relations. I wondered how my title reflects my work because I knew for sure that my work doesn’t reflect my title.
I’m a Developer Advocate and my role is by definition very versatile, but just a few weeks after starting it became apparent that I would (at least temporarily) take a different direction; partly replacing the usual responsibilities but also in addition. As a software engineer, I not only develop tools but also act as a technical consultant to support and improve the efficiency of teams. For this purpose, I have to understand the needs and expectations of employees beyond department boundaries. In all areas, I network externally with other companies and thought leaders, also in my leisure time, in order to gain insights into best practices and new approaches. Finally, I occasionally advise on topics such as Employee Experience, Organisational Design and more.
But no worries, that’s almost perfect to me, as I learn an incredible number of things and can prove myself beyond the expectations of my role. I have a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary background, that’s why I would consider myself a generalist. So, I’m more than happy to do whatever helps the company and my colleagues the most, no matter what KPIs are involved. Doesn’t sound like a real Developer Advocate, right?
TL;DR that leads to a phenomenon I lovingly call the Small Talk Dilemma.
The Small Talk Dilemma
First and foremost, titles serve to capture the essence of our daily work and to make tasks and hierarchies transparent. In the best case, it is not only a simple title but it even describes the responsibilities. But well, this even doesn’t really work within the company, how can it be translated to the outside world? I continue to take my title as an example.
The role of a Developer Advocate is — like many others — still very new and leads rather to confusion than to clarity. It is obvious that I have to simplify my job so that my grandparents understand it reasonably. But what about small talk in a bar/subway or a chat during a date? Most of the time I just say that I’m a software developer or the spokesperson of our developers, but that’s only slightly true. I want to explain my job briefly and painlessly between two subway stations or in a crowded bar.
Fortunately, this works with more common titles such as software developers, designers, consultants and so on. Unfortunately, these titles capture only a small part of each role’s essence. Also, this leads to a lot of other problems, even though I understand the purpose of the titles for both the company and individuals.
You Are More. Period.
The psychological effect of titles cannot be dismissed. They seem to determine identity, self-esteem, and status, similar to clothes, a new sports car or a penthouse apartment. It is about the others’ and oneself’s perception of one. It may give one recognition, appreciation and respect — but do we really want to judge others on their titles? Not rather on the basis of the achievements, the extra steps one has taken, successes or character traits? Titles make multi-dimensional people appear one-dimensional.
I am fully aware job titles are becoming increasingly important, especially in large companies. Often titles are directly linked to salary or salary levels. In addition, it provides authority in the respective domain, no doubt about it. So, I’d bet that many would prefer a better title over a salary increase.
Once, clothes seemed to make people, now it’s titles.
The authority is one of those things that often lead to bias because it doesn’t mean that someone with a higher or better fitting title is right. In fact, innovation requires input in the form of diverse thoughts and ideas. The ability to impact and contribute is not tied to the title or position. With good reason, I believe in projects inspired by Google’s The Garage that overcome silos and promote both the collaboration mindset and organisational growth. Titles hinder innovation by not speaking out these ideas because of fear of embarrassing oneself or stepping on the other’s toes. Sometimes it’s even an excuse to not take on more responsibility.
Job titles are like designer straitjackets: prestigious and at the same time restrictive in terms of empowerment.
As already mentioned, titles put the potential, traits and strengths of a person into a box, together with numerous colleagues sharing the same title. In my opinion, this is not desirable because you are more than your job and it often makes you forget the real purpose. For me, professional life is not a job but a lifestyle, so why reduce it to a title? Develop your own brand and stand out from the crowd; it’s not that hard being yourself.
Job titles are a double-edged sword that, on the one hand, gives us authority and respect in a certain way, and, on the other hand, takes away our entitlement to act and participate in areas exceeding the role’s responsibility. A mindset shift is necessary.
However, the problem and circumstance are so complex that there is no general solution or quick fix. Like so often, it just takes time, plenty of small steps and someone goes first. Overcome the boundaries of titles, show initiative by volunteering on projects that may be unpopular but interesting to you. Offer your help on other projects or ask colleagues across departments for their thoughts. It’s crucial to listen to, appreciate and make use of others’ ideas — emphasise the importance. The possibilities are endless. Want to get beyond the authority bias? Speak last, and make clear that you not only want the input from others but need it, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
I’m curious about your view and whether titles matter at your company, or they’re just pro forma? When was the last time you stepped out of the title’s comfort zone?