Job titles as a leading indicator of misplaced priorities? 26 Jul 2005

58 comments Latest by Anonymous Reader #2

I’ve been noticing a lot of “VP” and “Director” and “Manager” and “CxO” titles popping up lately. From a company of 15 people with titles such as “Director of Practice Development” and “Senior Practitioner” and “Director of Mental Model Practice” to a company of less than 10 with 4 “CxO’s” to a company of 5 with 2 “VPs.” I’m also seeing a lot of “associates” and “executives” at companies with under 10 people. And then there are the companies with 2 people and a board of directors of 5. Or the companies with “Senior” this and “Senior” that when there are no “Juniors” (and what does Jr/Sr really mean anyway?). We poked fun at this back in 1999, but I worry that the return of shiny titles is a small — but important — indicator of misplaced priorities.

The other one to look out for are pictures of huge new office spaces with a lot of space for “growth.” I’m seeing some of these crop up as well.

58 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Richard Bird 26 Jul 05

Not a new thought, but well put. ‘Reminds me of the flood of Fast and Wired titles seen in the late 90’s, like “Guru of Goofy” et cetera. Titles of any kind are usually more meaningful to the holder than to a public. Yet, there needs to be some point of reference to a person’s role. If not a title, what is it?

JF 26 Jul 05

Titles can be important to show hierarchy when there really is some but seeing a COO and a CTO at a company of 5 just seems redic to me. Or having Senior Designers when you have no “Designers” or “Junior Designers” also seems like an ego trip.

Ben Griffiths 26 Jul 05

In principle, I agree.

But then again, as a small company, the Cxx titles can help us open doors when talking to bigger clients.

One of the small company strengths is successfully pretending to be bigger than we are - big companies can rarely pretend to be smaller.

David Heinemeier Hansson 26 Jul 05

I wonder how much of that is underestimating your clients and how much of that is real. It would be interesting to hear from some of those big companies. Do titles impress you?

JF 26 Jul 05

Let’s stop the pretending. Let’s be ourselves. Do you really have a “CTO” if that person is the only programmer and technically minded person you have on staff? Can you be a “Chief Something Something” without anyone to lead? Imagine a tribe with a chief with no one below him — what would you think of that chief? He’d look pretty silly wouldn’t he?

Dan H 26 Jul 05

My day-job is in a Fortune 500 and we have a large I.T. department full of “Senior Business Analyst for International Software Application Development”-types and “Director of Strategic this-and-thats”. I put “Developer” on my business card, I’m not sure what they label me… and don’t care.

I’ve also know a guy who was in an 8-employee (3 of them VPs or C-levels) with a 10-member board. That also is silly.

But, I can maybe see some value in a 2-person company having a board of directors with 6 to 10 smart people. The board can exist to advise the two employees and make the employees think about their goals in long-term overview mode every once-and-a-while. It’s that kind of “strategic long-term thinking” that I’ve found has little hurt, and might have some benefit. Especially when you’re bouncing your ideas off some people in a more formal setting.

Just some thoughts. Nice articles lately. Thanks!

Adrian L. 26 Jul 05

I think the shiny titles are more an issue of masterbation than misplaced priorities. It makes people feel important.

As for “opening doors,” I’m fairly certain the title will have little, if anything, to do with getting business. Someone bent on getting the business will get it regardless of their title.

Unearthed Ruminator 26 Jul 05

Fancy title work in place of monetary rewards for some people (and they are a whole lot cheaper for companies to dish out).

ward andrews 26 Jul 05

JF - with your small and talented team, do you have titles at all?

JF 26 Jul 05

JF - with your small and talented team, do you have titles at all?

No, unless we’re asked and need to be specific for some reason. We’ll often reply “We don’t have titles” but if someone absolutely needs one we’ll go simple “Designer” “Programmer” “Business Guy” etc.

Anonymous Coward 26 Jul 05

Yeah, what’s on your business card?

Sam 26 Jul 05

Titles are pretty much meaningless when it comes to small 2-5 person ventures. People in a company of that size are doing everything, wearing multiple hats during a typical day.

The title issue really comes up (at least it did for us) when getting your business cards ready. Rather than pinpointing your role and responsibilities, you want to make sure that it doesn’t raise eyebrows when meeting clients - nothing too pretentious or silly or something that makes you look like a peon.

We’ve used Senior Partner as a title. Everyone has the same title! and its worked for us.

Traditional titles can be the most pretentious - “President” for example - especially when used in very small shops.

JF 26 Jul 05

We don’t have titles on our business cards. Just names, email, and phone number.

Justin French 26 Jul 05

I think that to an extent, titles are more of a tool for when you go for your *next* job, more than what it means to your existing role.

Mark Priestap 26 Jul 05

Jargon-esque Titles are a lot like having impressive clients on a resume. In our business, if our work stinks, it doesn’t matter what our title is or who our clients have been. If we stink, we stink.

David 26 Jul 05

I have to agree with Justin on this one. Your title at your current job may not mean much, but it can be a useful indicator to what kind of responsibilities you had when switching jobs.

Of course, that’s assuming you want to work for people who care what that title is. I much prefer the humorous title.

Art Wells 26 Jul 05

In my small experience, an increase in VP- or Cxx-titles/employee count is a very bad sign indeed. Starting out with a bad ratio is a bad recipe.

Dan Boland 26 Jul 05

…a company of 15 people with titles such as �Director of Practice Development� and �Senior Practitioner� and �Director of Mental Model Practice�…

Ahh, a swipe at the folks at Adaptive Path. I thought you guys were fans of theirs? Oh, and PS, that’s a hot business card. It could also double as an emergency guitar pick. =D

I think that to an extent, titles are more of a tool for when you go for your *next* job, more than what it means to your existing role.

I see your point, but I would hope an employer wouldn’t be that blinded by something as arbitrary as a title. At some point, you’d still have to produce the goods.

pwb 26 Jul 05

Is it Cxx or CxO?

Dan H 26 Jul 05

JF: We�ll often reply �We don�t have titles� but if someone absolutely needs one… …they can look at your titles on the building of basecamp site?

Your title is 3.2 words long. JHH’s has the word “Lead” in it. :)

JF 26 Jul 05

I do like Adaptive Path — a lot — but I think it’s kind of silly when nearly everyone is a director or manager of something.

Dan Boland 26 Jul 05

Oops, I wasn’t done commenting.

On one hand, I think if you start your own company, you’re entitled to call yourself whatever you want, and anyone that has a problem with it can suck it. But on the other hand, I definitely see Jason’s point when titles start teetering toward the edge of absurdity.

It all boils down to posturing, and there are two elements of that, personal posturing (calling yourself a Senior Designer when you’re the only designer) and the posturing of a company (giving everyone an important sounding but unnecessary title). Is it overconfidence? Insecurity? It all depends.

Stefan Seiz 26 Jul 05

Which is especialy true in the US. A couple of years ago, i to fly out to te US for a meeting with a webdesign company. This company had a “Director of delivery” (is that similar to a bike courier) which prompted me to get some special business cards printed for the meeting.
I had a set of at least 5 different business cards like:
Cief of permanent outgoing income
Senior Lighning and Stike Detonator
and so on. I also printed a mirrored image of the front of the cards onto the back side.
Well, in the meeting, the Guys from the Webdesign Firm made compliments about the mirrored backside of my business cards, but absolutely did not get the fun with the titles ;-)

Stefan Seiz 26 Jul 05

Oh well, how i wish i could edit such a misspelled comment after posting it.

Eric I. 26 Jul 05

Well an “officer” for a corporation has legal responsibilities that mere employees do not have. Thus there are more ways for an officer to go to prison. I am neither a lawyer nor an officer, and I do not know whether being a publicly traded corporation adds to the legal responsibilities (I’d guess that it does).

My public radio station is part of a public media trifecta which sees a radio, television, and web component. They have a “Chief Content Officer”. Given how infrequently the radio schedule and the web page format change, I laugh every time I hear the title or the name of the self-aggrandizing schmuck who holds the title.

Ryan 26 Jul 05

Heh… I’m never sure what to call myself when I fill out information forms. According to the Great State of California I’m the CEO and the President AND the Treasurer of my company. In practice I’m the lead developer. And the junior developer. Also I’m the Head Plumber, Lead Dishwasher, and the Chief Vacuum Cleaner Operator. Usually I just put “Principal” if I have to put something. Of course that confuses people too - that makes them think I’m in education.

Eamon 26 Jul 05

You’re assuming that the person on the other end of the phone knows about or even cares about your company structure. If I’m a CEO who wants to talk about creating a partnership with another company, I want to talk to my counterpart at that company. I’m not going to take thirty minutes to explain to the switchboard operator that I’m looking for someone in a position of authority who has the power to broker this deal I’d like to put together regarding this and that and such and such— I’m going to ask for the CEO. Done and done.

Here’s another scenario: suppose you’re an irate customer. You call 1-800-WHATEVER and demand to speak to a senior-level manager. They give you Joe. Joe is very friendly, very knowledgeable, and very adept at calming you down. Satisfied, you ask Joe for his contact information in case you have a problem in the future. Joe sends you email after the call, and the signature reads “Joe Soandso, Mail Sorter”. No matter how competent Joe proved himself to be, I’d bet dollars to dimes that you’d be furious. But what if it’d said “Joe Soandso, Senior Manager, Customer Relations”? You’d be perfectly satisfied. In Sunshinehappyland, titles are meaningless, but everywhere else, they’re a quick way to establish who you’re talking to and what they can do for you.

Also, I absolutely hate “clever” job titles. If I have a business card with a jokey title on it and I need to find a web developer in a hurry, do you think for one second that “Whizzy Magic Maker” stands a chance against the fifty others I have that say “Web Developer”?

Christopher Fahey 26 Jul 05

Let’s not allow our distates for stupid bloated nonsensical titles to force us to overlook the purpose of having titles in the first place. Some quick reasons why even a small company needs titles:

1) Titles tell clients what each person on the team does, and their level of authority and/or skill. If, as a client, I meet two designers from a 5 person company, and one is “Senior” and the other “Junior”, I know who to talk to when I need to call them about something important. If I know that a person is an owner/partner/director, I will know that the buck stops with that person.

2) A company with 10 people may be intending to grow to 50. Without an org chart (and titles), how will that growth occur? A CTO in a 5 person company can be the person in charge of hiring and growing the tech staff all the way to that goal. The CFO is

3) Employees want to have a title they can use to leverage their way into future jobs. It’s a little bit haughty of an employer to deny an employee the right to have a title that they think will, in the long run, help their resume and/or career. Not that employers should be in the business of helping their staff find new jobs, but we should at least be aware of and sensitive to the fact that our staffs have career plans and may not likely stay with us forever in the idyllic land of “titles dont matter”.

4) As Eric has pointed out, some titles have a legal meaning. If you’ve ever signed a contract with a large financial services institution, you’ll find that titles are critical.

There are more business models out there besides the “Five multitalented people distributed around the world and who dont want to grow any bigger” model. If it’s just a matter of preferring “accounting guy” to “CFO”, then your critique really is just superficially about business style, not substance.

Mark Bernstein 26 Jul 05

Lots of very small businesses need to be corporations, and corporations are often required to have boards of directors.

If you want an odd number of directors — probably a good idea — then you’re going to have a minimum of 3 directors. 5 doesn’t seem extravagant.

JF 26 Jul 05

There are more business models out there besides the �Five multitalented people distributed around the world and who dont want to grow any bigger� model. If it�s just a matter of preferring �accounting guy� to �CFO�, then your critique really is just superficially about business style, not substance.

I have no idea where that came from. This post has nothing to do with “our way is the only way” and we’d never say that anyway.

When you’re ready to grow add hierarchy as you need it, but not before. To think you can’t add a “CTO” at 25 people because you didn’t have one at 5 people is… myopic?

Tony 26 Jul 05

In my previous job, i worked at a non-profit with a small staff of 4. One person was the President/CEO, the two senior staff members (they had been there from quite some time) had “Director” in their titles, and I had Coordinator in my title. We also had a fairly large board (50+ slots, though not all filled at the time I was there), but on a non-profit board, the members pay (“donate”) to be on it rather than being paid for participation. Of course, at such a small company, and a non-profit to boot, we all wore a lot of hats, unencumbered by the titles on our business cards. The title I have at my current job doesn’t really describe what I do, either — nor does it sound important.

Christopher Fahey 26 Jul 05

This post has nothing to do with �our way is the only way�

Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound quite that way. It does seem, however, like you are questioning business models for which business titles are important from an idiosyncractic position in which they aren’t important.

When you�re ready to grow add hierarchy as you need it

Yes, but what if you’re ready to grow from day 1? What if your plan is to add 20 heads in the next year? A business with such a plan isn’t entirely unreasonable.

And anyway, I don’t see why a CTO title is inappropriate for 5 people but appropriate for 25. What’s the difference? Seems like just style to me. Loafers versus sneakers.

CDO of 9rules, aka, Mike Rundle 26 Jul 05


When referencing our titles, you forget to talk about the contest we held in order to make those titles. See, we all wanted to have the shortest possible title (tryin’ to “keep it real”) but when we drew straws to see who got to have the shortest title, we ended up forgetting to cut one of them shorter. So what happened is that we all agreed to have the exact same length of title, so nobody felt left out. Everybody’s got three letters, whether they want them or not!

I’m the “Design” guy, Matto is the “Ideas” guy, Colin is the “Programmer” guy, and Scrivs is the “Slacker” guy. See, we’re not as self-masturbatorial as some would think ;)

test 26 Jul 05


Rob 26 Jul 05

Job Titles mean something to some people..more of an ego trip type thing..I guess. In some organizations, it means being respected b/c you have the title of Director/Managing Director, etc..It also means salary to some extent..

I agree that a title is just a title, and really says squat about your ability to perform your job. I’ve met quite a few people with big titles that are the least qualified to be doing what printed on their business card…

The focus should be on providing the best product or service and not what’s in your job title.

Menno 26 Jul 05

Please do also not forget that titles can be many things to different people. Even in smaller companies it can be a major status symbol for employees. A ‘higher’ title can be an important goal to aspire. Not just because the higher pay it represents but because it signifies a milestone in someone’s career.

Even if there aren’t any ‘juniors’ in a company, it’s only fair to promote someone to ‘senior’ if that person deserves it.

Besides that, not every client appreciates someone showing up on their doorstep with “programmer guy” on the business card. Especially when doing business abroad this can send unwanted signals, even though you mean well. Not all clients appreciate talent over title.

Scrivs 26 Jul 05

If you were an Inc. you would be required to name a board of directors so at the very least Jason you would have to be the President. Therefore you get that outrageous tag associated with you. We went the Inc. route and for the application we all needed titles. Therefore you get a company of four people with four CxO titles. Quite simple.

The problem isn’t the titles, but the way people abuse the titles. I could care less if everyone at Google or Apple had a CxO title, as long as they understood their roles and got the job done. LLC’s don’t have CxOs, but partners and whatever else.

This post really has nothing to do with how a company is run, but the fact you don’t like titles. Sure I like being called the CEO of a company because that’s what I always dreamed of, but I don’t think it gets me into the front of the line wherever I go. It’s a title that shows where I am at on the food chain. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Now once we start hyping every little project we do 10 months before it launches then maybe everyone should worry about our titles. Till then, we will just do what we do.

Adam Bramwell 26 Jul 05

A literary friend proposed to me what she thought made a good writer: “They put into words what the general public feel but can’t express”

In some cases the public can’t express things due to being unable to find the right words. But in other cases it’s because they’re afraid to speak out. Not in this case!

lane 26 Jul 05

we didn’t have job titles @ ap for the first four years of our company, but we have them now, and i can assure you that we added them becayse we needed them, not because we suddently wanted “shinier titles.” in fact, i went from “partner” to “director” — that there’s title deflation, if anything.

as for why: christopher and eamon basically summed it up. we’re growing, we have a plan for that growth, people are taking on more specialized roles, and the titles we have help communicate both inside and out what these new roles and responsibilities are. pretty straightforward, really, so i’m not sure what all the fuss is about.

Brian Breslin 26 Jul 05

I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with titling yourself CEO or President if you are in fact that. Now something i think would be more interesting to me is to see what creative types do as far as business cards go, I’m in the process of getting new cards designed for my company (we moved to bigger digs, etc.), and am having trouble figuring out how much to put on the card, etc.

ME 26 Jul 05

I think the “fuss” just comes down to a simple superiority complex that smaller companies tout in order to swim with the big fish. Calling your receptionist the “Manager of Administrative Services” does nothing but muddle her actual job description with fancy words so she can feel better about herself and her job. Calling yourself a “Manager” of anything when you clearly aren’t managing *anyone* is just silly. Further, no one *needs* the title of “Mental Model” Some Such since no one *gets* what the hell that even means!

Wouldn’t it be wiser for a growing company to just stay simple with everything from their business models to their professional titles? If you’ve got people stumbling over your job titles trying to determine what the difference is between the “Senior Practitioner” and the “Director of User Experience Strategy,” don’t you think it’d just be easier to say, “He’s the developer, I’m a programmer”?

Complexity sometimes just gets in the way, especially when a small company is aiming for higher ground. Being straightforward means communicating simply, it doesn’t mean having to explain to people what it is you actually *do* as a “Strategist” or “Director” of anything.

By the way, WTF is a “Practitioner” anyway??

Peter Merholz 26 Jul 05


As the “Director of Practice Development” mentioned in Jason’s post, I feel obliged to reply.

I assumed that title because it explains exactly what I do with much of my time at Adaptive Path: I direct the development of our practice. Our practice being: how we do our work. Development being: how we develop the ability to do our work. Direct being: figure out, and execute on, the best ways to develop the ability to do our work.

It is a function that has specific job requirements and responsibilities. No one else in the organization has it. It defines precisely what I do.

Adaptive Path is a company that takes its practice seriously. As we grow, we want to make sure that we maintain the quality of our work, and in order to do that, we are systematizing (a bit) *how* we do that work.

Each of the Directors at Adaptive Path serves a similarly specialized role. This is not puffing ourselves up for our own sake. That would involve the use of “Vice President,” which *no one* at Adaptive Path has in their title.

The other thing that’s important about our job titles is that they are odd, or unheard-of, because we are attempting to break new ground. No company has had a “Director of User Experience Strategy,” because no company has taken that responsibility seriously enough to devote a role to it. We are a user experience company, and in order to ensure that innovation doesn’t get lost in the more standard corporate structure we’re assuming, we’re creating new roles so that we maintain our edge — something that we see as missing in the larger consulting firms.

So, Jason, in the title of your post, you are fabulously, and gloriously, WRONG. Our job titles do not demonstrate misplaced priorities. They do the exact opposite. They demonstrate exceedingly apt priorities for a company on the grow, ensuring the perceived importance of often-overlooked roles.

I could argue that your own-horn-tooting of “Getting Real” as a “misplaced priority” — shouldn’t you just do the work? Why do you need to give it a name? What makes it so special, when it just seems like any kind of small team development?

Anonymous Coward 27 Jul 05

It’s obvious from reading Peter’s comment that he’s even more of a stuffed shirt than his silly title suggests.

JF 27 Jul 05

Hey, I think detailed job titles for small companies are silly so I posted about it. That’s all. I’m sure you think a lot of what we say is silly. We’re all entitled (and that’s why we each have blogs with open comments). I didn’t call you or anyone wrong, I just said “I worry that it’s a small indicator of misplaced priorities.” At least I know what you fabulously, and gloriously, and think of my 2 cents (in ALL CAPS no less) ;)

I just wonder about managers without people to manage. Directors directing themselves. Why does a company of 15 have 6 directors? Who’s directing who in what direction?

Anyhow, this isn’t a slam on AP — you guys definitely know what you’re doing and I’m not here to criticize your obvious and well deserved success. I just used a couple of your titles as examples because I was familiar with them.

Ryan 27 Jul 05

With small firms, titles have a tendency to mean very little internally. To clients, however, they tend to help enormously. Sometimes explaining what you do requires that you structure your own organization like the organizations you’ve got to work with. The less time you need to spend articulating what it is you can do for somebody, the more time you have to actually get it done.

Not a Steve 27 Jul 05

In our small company, we use titles as a means of indicating capability relating to the industry. If we drop the “Senior” from “Designer” in the title for one person, they lose the ability, on some level, to compete against and interact with other agencies that have “Senior Designers.”

Put it another way, AIGA lists an annual salary survey by job title. “Junior” and “Senior” is less an indication of hierarchy than of schooling and agency experience. If a Senior Designer leaves an agency of 30 for one of 5, they should maintain the title because that reflects their experience and capability.

sosa 27 Jul 05

you mean that I can�t be the CEO for my one-man company?

Anonymous Coward 27 Jul 05

For those of you who can’t read, JF never said he was against job titles, he said it was a little worried about some of these shiny new titles at small companies. There’s a vast chasm between “little worried” and AGAINST.

I think he has a valid point: Why do small companies need all these “directors” and “managers” if they aren’t directing anyone or managing anyone. Titlesterbation is on the rise!

Colin D. Devroe 27 Jul 05

My official title is C3TO, but “the guys” thought everyone would think I was a Star Wars loving geek that had no life and did nothing but play on his Macintosh all day and eat Cheez-its and dream of being able to burp the entire alphabet after drinking 2 liters of Dr. Pepper without taking a single breath. I say, why fool the public?

Anonymous 27 Jul 05

“It�s obvious from reading Peter�s comment that he�s even more of a stuffed shirt than his silly title suggests.”

Oh come now, the AP folk are just not used to people tapping the walls of their glass castle. Perhaps when their “growing company” has grown a little they’ll be more receptive to constructive criticism and that social elitism they pride as being such a necessity will show itself a little more useless than they thought.

Matthew Oliphant 27 Jul 05

Actually, I am also the Treasurer… wait, no, the Secretary of the company. Like Paul said, there are some pesky required fields on the form in order to be a Inc.

But, even given that, just because we have only 4 people now doesn’t mean we will always have only 4 people. I like the AP model because the job title describes what they do. Who knows what a CXO does? I mean really, as a CXO I need to find out!

But for that matter, “programmer” doesn’t really mean much because, well, what do you program? Do you do .Net, or RoR, or event planning?

In the end, none of us get hired because of our titles, it’s because we do good work. We thought about the titles for about 2 minutes, then got back to work.

Dan Saffer 27 Jul 05

Please stop tapping on our glass walls. It’s really annoying. :)

As someone who works at AP, I wanted to note a few things. Our titles are mainly for clients. Yes, some of them seem wonky, but there’s a method to the madness; there’s a justification for them that is more than ego. You might not agree with the justification—hey, I don’t agree with all of them myself—but there is a reason for them, as Peter outlined above.

The practitioners (I hate that word too—IMHO, we’re designers) have senior in our title because we all have 7+ years of experience and would be called senior practically any place else. We simply don’t have any junior (1-3 years experience) people on staff.

“Manager” isn’t limited to just managing people; it can also be things or processes. “Office Manager,” “Plant Manager,” and “Location Manager” are pretty standard titles in the business world. Our “receptionist” doesn’t just answer phones; she’s the office and HR manager. Likewise, our client relations manager, while she doesn’t manage people, manages the sales process. But I can understand the confusion.

I should also note that while AP is 15 people, we also exist in a web (pun intended) of colleagues and collaborators. The number of people who might be working for/with AP at any given moment might be double that. Coordinating and strategically directing them (and people like me) is no small task.

As far as social elitism, we throw more open parties and host more open gatherings than any company I’ve ever worked for. Come to one of them and I’ll get you a beer and we can talk about titles properly. Cheers!

josh 27 Jul 05

You don’t want to fight with Adaptive Path, mostly because Veen’s reach is insane!

MK 01 Aug 05

And now for some humor:

I remember working at a small open-source based company in Ottawa, which was gobbled up by a larger telecom company. One of our employees had chosen the title “General Specialist” for herself, and it caused much confusion in the larger firm’s HR department after the merger.

Of course, she was one of the first to go when the layoffs began…

Anonymous Reader 12 Aug 05

I like to keep it simple.

I’m the guy in charge of thinking things up ~and~ getting things done.

Anonymous Reader #2 19 Oct 05

I think it comes down to 1 simple concept. A big shot likes to help his/her friends along. If the company is doing well, they see no harm in throwing together a title and giving them stuff to do, so their friend can share in the wealth.