The Trouble With Titles

I recently took steps to get out of my current, part-time MBA program and into the executive version. To get some questions about the switch answered, I met with a program rep. One of the topics she wanted to cover was whether I met the minimum requirement of 10 years work experience. Having been in the web game for 12 years, I was a shoe-in. But she informed me that the requirement came with a caveat- the 10 years should show growth in management and/or increasing responsibility. Further, one way the school gauges an applicant’s worthiness is by their work title. That’s when “shoe-in” turned to “hmmm…” for me. I don’t consider titles in the web world to carry much meaning and have therefore never given them much thought or credibility. Want to know if someone is good? Look at their body of work and ask pointed questions. Want to get into an executive MBA program? Apparently, get a good title. WTF? At this point, “hmmm…” turned into “let me explain…”

My current title is Web Designer/New Media Specialist, a moniker bestowed on me after our university’s restructuring. Before that, I was simply Web Designer. I’ll take a wild guess that these titles won’t be looked upon favorably by the admissions reviewers. After all, after 12 years in the business, I effectively have the same title as I did when I started. The cynics out there might say, well maybe you’re a crap designer. Yeah, maybe. But after 12 years in the business, my work must be somewhat passable. Maybe I’m a jerk and alienate myself into low level positions. Maybe my bosses have researched my online profiles and think I’m a liability. Whatever the real reasons, my own self diagnosis for a lack of impressive title is due to my personal motivations and the age of the web. 

So back to the meeting. I found myself in a strange, apologetic tone. Surely, I needed to excuse my lack of title. Ironically, after my meeting, I was to meet with the Chancellor and Provost to present ideas on how a new website would save the university money, allow us to be much more customer centric than ever before, produce content with less effort and, in general, be more nimble and current in our approach. Isn’t this the kind of presentation a mid level manager at a big company would give to senior management? I thought about this juxtaposition for the rest of the day. What’s in a title? Why are web world titles so… arbitrary? And how do we, as a community, effectively translate our contributions via titles to outsiders?

Do Web Titles Do Us Justice?

There’s no doubt that I’m on the low rung of my university’s hierarchy (though I consider that the university’s loss). I have a breadth and depth of experience that my organization could put to effective use. Instead, my school has proven unwilling, unable or, worst yet, indifferent to fully utilize me. Why? I certainly hope it’s not because of my title. How disappointingly sad would that be- not only for myself but for the school? Would my job, my credibility and my contributions be any different if I had a title like Director of Web Communications or Vice Chancellor of All Things Web? Given the web team’s tiny staff size, I don’t think my job nor my contributions would be much different, but credibility? Probably.

When you only have a couple warm bodies available to work on a site with tens of thousands of pages and millions of yearly visitors like we do, you can bet that lofty titles or not, everyone does grunt work, everyone sweats the details and everyone is accountable to visitors. That’s just how it is from a practical standpoint. In this regard, titles in our industry don’t matter. What does matter, at least in my experience, is the promise of making great things. The web world is littered with people who want to elevate the web, and hence the organization, to a higher level. That seems to be the major motivation rather than fancy titles, corner offices or windfall year-end bonuses (though I wouldn’t turn any of those things down along the way).

The View From the Outside

The web, as we know and interact with it today, is a very young industry- 15 years, perhaps? My executive MBA peers, in contrast, work in health, finance, sales, etc.- professions that have been around for centuries, even millennia. Is it any wonder our industry still debates what our titles should be? It’s still too young and needs to sort itself out. 

For example, I’m considered a generalist in the field- someone whose skill set crosses many specialized functions. Other people consider themselves specialists- someone who knows all the ins and outs within a particular area like Flash or Ruby on Rails. Which is the right approach? Is one type of person more “senior” than the other? Should one manage the other, but not vice versa? The web is so collaborative and job functions are so permeable, a sense of hierarchy hasn’t solidified and this causes people outside of the business to easily misunderstand what it is we do and the importance of our work to an organization. Those things are changing, but it is slow. As Jesse James Garrett in the podcast linked above says, things won’t markedly improve for us until our group begins to house the VP and C-level ranks of major organizations.

Until then, I would argue that titles act as shorthand for your professional status. That’s why people are so concerned with their titles (since I’ve largely worked in smaller organizations surrounded by like minded people, titles haven’t mattered much). But I don’t find this race to the top as prevalent in the web. Maybe our young age has everything to do with that. Since we’re all relatively young, perhaps there’s a generational shift away from placing so much power and respect into titles. I don’t know. All I do know is that the admissions people who review my executive MBA application may not understand what my title of Web Designer really means or confers upon me. Hopefully they do, but until I’m sure, it goes without saying that I need to ensure that my title doesn’t arbitrarily stereotype me, demote my contributions or limit my worth.

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