Every industry is going to have its own lingo and it’s important that both people working within it and outside of it understand what it means. Today I’d like to talk about the titles we use to describe ourselves. For instance, do you know the difference between a designer and an art director? How about a front-end developer and a back-end developer? Does it suffice to call either of them a “programmer?” How about a “coder,” or simply a “developer?” No, because in practice they can mean very different things.
What else is in a title? Well, think of the words junior, intermediate, and senior. As you probably know, these words help describe the level of skill one has. How about the words assistant, coordinator, manager, director and executive? These words describe the amount of responsibility and power one has. Does your company or project require a senior developer? Or maybe just a junior developer? Should you expect a junior developer to know how to build an e-commerce site? How about a Facebook application? What does an account manager do that an account coordinator doesn’t? The differences are worth knowing because titles like these, or rather, what these titles represent, help determine expectations for the employer, employee and client – expectations like the timeline, scope, strategy, salaries (more on that later) and cost.
Job titles are important no matter how specific they are. In some cases it may be a good idea to define yourself or a job post as concisely as possible because you, the employer or a client may be looking for a very specific type of work (you wouldn’t want a .NET developer if all of your websites are written using PHP). In other cases, it may be a better idea to have a more ambiguous title because it can suggest a range of skills. Maybe you’re looking for someone to do both front and back-end development. Maybe you sometimes write copy and design a user interface for the web at the same time. How would you describe yourself so that people understand what it is you do? Be careful though, because defining yourself (or the job description) too narrowly could limit your prospects. On the other hand, no one wants a “jack of all trades, master of none,” so it’s a delicate balance.
Job titles can sometimes get a little ridiculous, though if you think about them, even they can often mean something very specific. Think of the title “CSS Ninja.” What’s up with that? People who write CSS are not ninjas at all, though they do slice up photoshop files. Notice I used the word “slice,” because I think it’s safe to say that’s the analogy being made. How about the title “Guru.” Why would our industry use the word guru (if you don’t believe me that we do, go to http://guru.com)? By definition, the word means “master” or “teacher” in Sanskrit, though it is often used loosely to define anyone who is “wise” and/or “logical.” What does a back-end developer do? They write logic (i.e. if the user clicks on the submit button, store the data of a form in a database; if user does X, initiate Y). Again, there is an analogy being made. You could also interpret “Guru” as senior level – someone who could take the role of a teacher, meaning they’d be responsible for instructing and overseeing junior staff. But is the analogy necessary? You can be the judge of that.
You might be thinking: Why do job titles matter if they are accompanied by a job description? The answer to this goes back to expectations. It’s not uncommon to see the word junior in a title that requires 5 years of experience. Does that make sense? Not really. But the word junior can mean a lower salary and that’s why you’ll see that (shame!). Should a senior C++ developer know advanced jQuery? Not necessarily, and yet there are job descriptions listing both, which is fine if the employer is prepared to compensate that person for having such a diverse and useful skill set.
Some of my friends have held “account coordinator” positions in which they claim to have done the same amount of work, if not more than their direct superiors holding an “account manager” position, and are paid less than them (and this is after being at that agency for about two years). The reason? “Because that’s how we do things.” If you ask me, that’s not a very good answer. And of course, that’s what my friends thought, so what did they do about it? They left that agency and went to work for a new one as an “account manager” where they did the same amount of work and got paid more for it. How does that make any sense? No wonder younger generations change jobs so often!
Job titles shouldn’t dictate your salary or exploit your skill set. The quality of work you do and the hours you put in are what matters. Here at Teehan+Lax we use titles quite loosely because we believe in just that. Titles don’t define you; your work does. Of course, there are practical applications of having titles, which I hope to have explained above, and so we maintain a certain level of description that we use to understand the work we do as a team. Again, I emphasize that titles should be balanced – not too limiting and not too vague.
Clarity on titles can be imperative because when these kinds of terms aren’t understood, problems arise, and this goes for any industry. Knowing what someone is capable of doing and how to describe the kind of work you’re looking for (whether you’re hiring or applying) is absolutely critical to doing good work and delivering it on time as expected. Clients, freelancers, employers and potential employees all need to be on the same page. Most importantly though, don’t let a title get in the way of making epic shit.
Photo: Brendan Lynch