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The Vanishing Relevance of Job Titles in Tech

The Vanishing Relevance of Job Titles in Tech

What’s in a job title? Apparently, less than those who hold them would like to believe.

Job titles are a staple of business and corporate culture. They are used to identify someone’s place and responsibilities within an organization, while also serving as an indicator of achievement and even status. In social platforms such as LinkedIn, personal stories can be told through the titles that a person has held over the years. 

Nevertheless, a rising wave of business gurus and entrepreneurs are putting into question the usefulness of titles in the workplace, especially now that they seem to be losing meaning.

A recent study by HR analysis firm Datapeople pointed to a growing trend of “job title inflation” in tech between 2019 and 2021. According to the firm, 25% of jobs previously labeled as “junior” (requiring less than 4 years of experience) were re-labeled as “senior” positions (requiring more than 10 years of experience), with the word “lead” doubling for such positions.

For mid-level jobs (between 4 to 10 years of experience required), “senior” labeling increased 20%, and the use of the term “staff” as part of the job title climbed 25%. The latter trend was seen more strongly among startups and unicorns. Datapeople’s assessment is that the push comes from a similar trend that prevails among bigger tech companies, such as Amazon, Netflix, Google, Facebook and Apple. 

A more whimsical form of job title inflation has been seen for a while. From Fashion Evangelist and Digital Overlord to Interwebs Mechanic and Dr. Fix, some companies –especially in tech– have grown playful and creative with their naming conventions for jobs, sometimes falling into redundant, confusing, misleading and even overtly ridiculous territory. Even Tesla joined the game, bestowing its CFO with the title of “Master of Coin”.

An Irresponsible Game

There’s an understandable logic behind the trend of inflated job titles and even playfulness in naming conventions. The former seeks to make positions more attractive, drawing a wider and more prepared pool of prospects. In the latter case, companies use them to project a playful inner culture which aims to attract vibrant and creative candidates. 

While making use of job titles this way serves a purpose, HR experts have warned against the ways in which it can backfire on employers. 

“Inflated job titles can deter qualified potential applicants and, worse, significantly decrease the diversity of the applicant pool […] Title inflation reduces visibility of the job and impacts both candidate quality and diversity at the top of the funnel,” Datapeople warns in its report.

Hiring platform Indeed has also warned against the practice, pointing out that getting too creative or ambitious with titles can throttle the effectiveness of job ads in search engines. The practice could also lead to opaqueness –both externally and internally– when assessing the actual responsibilities of the post. 

The practice seems riskier in today’s job market. Tech talent is in short supply given the unprecedented levels of demand for their specialized services.

Though companies might be tempted to use unconventional strategies to attract software engineers, inflating job titles or complicating them might result in a labor landscape that’s more difficult to navigate for both employers and employees. 

Should We Quit Titling People Altogether?

As the meaninglessness of job titles seems to increase in tech, some of the top players in the industry have begun to question their usefulness, going as far as proposing to make away with them altogether. Barely a year ago, Elon Musk infamously said that CEO and CFO are “made-up” titles that “don’t mean anything”, adding that the only three titles with any meaning in a company are President, Secretary and Treasurer, which “can technically be the same person”.

Whether Musk makes a good point or not, the fact is that company executives, business gurus and HR experts are wondering about the actual value that titles provide beyond drawing hierarchical structures in companies and supplying uniformity to how professionals tell their journey.

“Rigid job descriptions are no longer appealing to modern workers who understand the value of continuous learning and collaboration to their future careers”—Tyrone Smith, Global Head of People Analytics at Udemy

The post-COVID rethinking of the workplace is giving rise to discussions of alternatives to job titles. Management guru and Corporate Rebels Co-Founder Joost Minnaar, for example, has suggested transitioning from titles to roles. This, he proposes, would allow for less siloing and more flexibility in the workplace, which would foster collaboration and the flow of ideas.

“Each person can have multiple roles; they don’t necessarily have to be within the same discipline. For example, an accountant with a love for graphic design could have both roles in the same company,” Minnaar explained in a blog post. “By eliminating job titles, you are not only eliminating the ‘that’s not my job’ cop out, but also creating a work environment that encourages people to collaborate and make decisions together, leading to some serious cross-pollination.”

In a similar fashion, HR management experts have argued in favor of using skills, not job titles or specific tasks, as guides to assemble teams and structure the relationships within the workplace.

“Rigid job descriptions are no longer appealing to modern workers who understand the value of continuous learning and collaboration to their future careers”, pointed out Tyrone Smith, Global Head of People Analytics at Udemy. “We need to focus on skills, not tasks. This will help to identify the right talent with the necessary skills to accomplish a goal, without locking individuals into a specific role or saddling them with inflexible job titles.”

Crisis-Forced Change

The tightening of the job market has forced companies to grow more flexibile in their hiring practices and corporate structure.

The drift is reflected in another label-related trend growing in tech: the debate of degrees versus skills. In the face of a high demand and low supply of software engineers, some employers are opting to ignore scholarly credentials and focus on the provable skills that prospects bring to the job interview. 

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Questioning the purpose of job titles in the workplace seems to sprout from the same urgency. As labor costs push upward, employers search for the best practices to turn the workplace into a smooth-running machine. If rigid hierarchies are hindering workflows and the circulation of ideas, ultimately upsetting productivity, why keep them in their current state?

Whether job titles disappear entirely or not, no one should be surprised if tech dives into a phase of workplace experimentation. The results should be, at the very least, worth chronicling. 

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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