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What’s in a Job Title?

Every industry is going to have its own lingo and it’s important that people working within it and outside of it understand what it means, so 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?” The answer is no, because in practice they can mean very different things.

How about the titles junior, intermediate, and senior? As I’m sure you know, these titles help describe the level of skill one has. And the titles assistant, coordinator, manager, director and executive? These words describe the amount of responsibility or 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 and cost.

It is important to be aware of how specific your job title is. 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. After all, you wouldn’t want a .NET developer if all of your websites are written using PHP! However, 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. How would you describe yourself so that people understand what it is you do? Be careful because defining yourself (or the job description) too narrowly could limit your prospects, and conversely, no one wants a “jack of all trades, master of none.” It’s a delicate balance.

Job titles can sometimes get a little ridiculous, although if you think about them they can often be quite meaningful. Think of the title “CSS Ninja.” What’s up with that? People who write CSS are not ninjas at all; they slice up photoshop files. Ah ha! Notice the word “slice?” There’s the analogy. 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 “logical.” And 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). They’re also likely responsible for instructing and overseeing junior staff, much like a teacher, so again, there are analogies being made.

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. 5 years?! Does that make any sense? No, it doesn’t, but the word junior implies a lower salary and that’s why you’ll see that (shame!).

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 they left that agency and went to work for a new one as an “account manager” where they did the same work and got paid more for it. How does that make any sense? No wonder younger generations change jobs so often!

The bottom line is that 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 but your work does. Of course, there are practical reasons for having job titles, and so we maintain a certain level of description that we use to understand the work we do as a team. Again, I want to emphasize that job 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

Michael Lynch More posts by Michael Lynch