Why titles matter (even though I wish they didn't)

As much as we strive to create a healthy boundary between our work life and our personal life, our job titles still have an impact on our personal identity. Your work shouldn't define you, but maybe your job title does? As software engineers, it seems like we are expected to always chase the next promotion. From Junior to Mid-level to Senior to Staff to Senior Staff to ...

I have never put too much thought on my job title, until a few experiences I had interviewing for jobs a couple of years ago, where I got extremely low-balled because my title at the time was just Fullstack Engineer. That got me thinking about job titles and why they matter, even though I wished they didn't (and it also somehow took me 2 years to write this article!).

So let's first look at the utility of job titles, what their drawbacks are, and what a better way forward might look like.

Why titles matter?

There are very good reasons why we have job titles. For one, the role someone plays is part of that title, and you'd probably want to see a doctor and not a civil engineer if you just broke your leg! Within companies, titles give the same level of clarity as to which role people play. Titles go beyond roles though and add an extra layer of information: seniority and hierarchy. Now, I want to take some time to make a semantic distinction. When I talk about titles, I talk about things like "Senior Software Engineer". When I talk about roles, I talk about things like "Software Engineer".

Back to why titles matter, they also signal expectations for people wearing them. The higher the seniority of a title, the higher the expectations. This helps provide a common set of expectations for employees at a certain level. Beyond expectations at one's level, titles help provide career development paths. Each title has (or should have) a well-defined set of expectations which provide guidance for promotions. Titles also help with retention, as promotions (and the subsequent change in title) can provide strong incentives to stay in the company. Finally, titles help align compensation, both internally and externally. Certain roles have higher compensation than others, and within those roles, certain titles also have different scales of compensation.

Issues with inflated and deflated job titles

There are many issues that can arise from inflated and deflated job titles, from team (and power) dynamics, to favouritism, bias and discrimination. All those issues deserve their own post and are not less important than what I'm going to be focusing on.

Actually, let's just quickly call out a few things. If your team or company gives more weight to someone's ideas or talking points because of their title, get out! If you feel like you are being held back at a lower title than what your work demonstrates, and you have unsuccessfully risen that issue through your hierarchy, get out!

Now, the main area where I have had issues with job titles is when I was looking for jobs. I just left a company where I was the first engineering hire, and I didn't think much of my official title being "Fullstack Engineer", as my compensation was well in line with the top of the market for a "Senior" level title. To my surprise I got a few extremely low-ball offers when looking for new jobs, with in one case the hiring manager telling me that I "wasn't Senior yet" to justify an offer 50% lower than my previous salary. Luckily, I found a few places where my skills were valued more than my previous title.

That experience opened my eyes to the fact that people will inherently be biased based on your title, both within a company and externally. As much as I dislike it, that's the reality we live in, and titles do matter even more for minority folks in the industry.

Titles internally, roles externally?

My main thesis in this post is that titles make sense internally (i.e. within companies) as they can be clearly defined and are comparable. Externally, each company might have their own slightly different definition of what is expected of a "Staff Software Engineer".

Internally, career ladders (and by extension, job titles) make a lot of sense. Common pitfalls include giving more weight to people with more seniority or discriminating against people by holding them at a lower level than they should, but that would happen regardless of job titles, and should be addressed at the company's level.

Externally, job titles beyond expressing a role or function don't make a lot less sense, both for individuals and job ads. "Senior" in one company might mean something completely different in another. Instead of focusing on searching for "Senior" engineers, providing clear expectations in terms of skills and requirements might yield better results (both in terms of quality of hire and diversity).

Personally, I'll keep publicising my positions based on role, externally showing "Software Engineer" regardless of my actual level of seniority and official title in a company. If anything, this helps me filter out companies where the culture might not align with my personal values!

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Multicultural software engineer passionate about building products that empower people.