The Trouble With Job Titles

I’ve had a good career so far. I began working full-time as a programmer in 2008. At that time my title was Junior Developer. I had a decent boss and cool co-workers, and I cut my teeth on Java and .NET. It was a good experience. After 2 years at that gig, I felt that it was time to move on.

I contacted recruiters, and one eventually found me a promotion: Systems Analyst. It came with a decent pay bump and so forth, as well as the luxury of dropping “Junior” from my job title. As this was a good deal all around, I took the offer.

A few more years went by and I found myself once again looking for “the next step” in my career. Lo-and-behold my current company had appreciated my skill as a Systems Analyst and wanted to bring me on as a Developer. Before I knew it I was a .NET Developer which, as my other job changes had previously, came with a pay raise and better perks. Things were going great.

I did 3 years total with this company, during which I was promoted to .NET Development Team Lead – a terrific title in the realm of programming. I ran a small team of 4-5 people and things were going pretty well.

Eventually, having maxed out my skills and knowledge at this company, I moved on. I became a .NET Architect with appropriate pay and benefits. It was a reasonable gig.

This is where I’ll introduce a sideline fact: during my entire career to this point, recruiters (both in-house and third-party) had been cold-calling and contacting me with jobs that matched my current title (with more contact as I got further in my career). As a .NET Development Team Lead, I was offered jobs that ranged from Senior Developer to Team Lead to Architect. As a .NET Architect, I was offered titles from Team Lead to Architect to Manager. So far things made sense.

About 5 months ago I took a job with a company that I love, Stack Exchange. Things are going great so far, and I’ve never been treated better in my entire development career. My pay and benefits are top-notch, my job perks are incredible, and my boss is a genuinely competent, solid human being – as are all of my co-workers. It is the current high-bar of my career track record.

Where it becomes interesting is in my job title. At Stack Exchange I am a Web Developer. That’s the whole title. Not Manager, or Team Lead, or Architect, but Web Developer. The reason for this is that Stack Exchange is not a company that cares for credentialism. We hire smart people who gets things done (their words, not mine) and developers here handle projects from start to finish. This means that we sometimes act as a Manager of others, sometimes a Team Lead of others, and often an Architect as we discuss and debate the best way to solve a particular problem or design a particular system.

It was not until I got this job that I realized how broken the current recruiting industry is. Just 6 months ago I was receiving cold calls and offers to interview for Team Lead, Architect, and Manager jobs (with expected pay). Can you guess what jobs they contact me with these days?

Junior Developer and Intermediate Developer. Complete with massive pay and benefits cut. Offering these positions to me is a complete waste of both my time and the recruiter’s.

It’s pretty obvious why this happens: recruiters are usually not contacting me personally based on researching my career and goals. They are contacting me as 1 of 10-50 others that they will contact via cold-call or e-mail on any given day. A shotgun approach of “fire it off and see what hits” as it were.

I am certainly not egotistical enough to be offended by being offered titles and pay well below my current skill set. What does bother me, however, is the fact that I cannot convince most recruiters of anything otherwise. I took it upon myself to explain to one recruiter that Web Developer at Stack Exchange is about the equivalent (in my opinion) of a Team Lead or Architect at many other companies. Their response was that if that were true, it would be my title here. I was dumbfounded.

Given that there are no current standards for developer titles, it is plain to see that a Developer at Company A could be anything from a Junior Developer to CIO at Company B. It’s a crap shoot. Especially when you consider the fact that some companies inflate the titles of their employees as a “free” form of making them feel valued (as opposed to, say, paying them properly).

I don’t know what the solution is to the recruiting industry’s problem, but it does make me realize the value of Stack Overflow Careers. We match candidates with jobs based on experience, interests, and open source projects, not via titles and credentialism. We explicitly ban companies that spam candidates with a job offering. This means that every single message written to you as a candidate is personalized and written by hand by the recruiter. Very few recruiting companies can claim similarly. We continue to evolve this product, and I hope that one day it sets a new standard for recruiting where people don’t blindly call you up with jobs that match your current title.

This lack of standards is a difficult problem to solve. I don’t pretend that I have the answers. It does show me precisely how you end up working with incompetent people though.

John Doe is an incompetent developer who works for a small dev shop that gives him low pay but a big title such as Senior Developer. A recruiter eventually offers this developer jobs of a similar title but that have the appropriate pay. John jumps at the giant raise and heads to the next company. What happens next is something we’ve surely all seen a few times… John can’t hack it, John gets 3-6 months in and gets let go. John was cheated by the system of credentialism. Who can blame him directly for grabbing the highest value offering he can get? We all would.

This broken system wastes time, tons of money, and screws up company culture. Nobody likes working with John as a peer when he knows 1/10th of what they do, does even less work, and gets paid the same or better. That causes your good developers to run for the hills, and your workplace culture to suck as another John fills the now open role of a good dev.

The current state of the recruiting industry is fairly toxic. Most recruiters will put anyone anywhere to make a buck and meet their draw or quota.

The question becomes: how do we, with Stack Overflow Careers, completely dismantle this system and rebuild it properly? Time will tell, and I’m excited to see the results.

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10 Responses to “The Trouble With Job Titles”

  1. Gareth Lewis says :

    How do you think smart managers get rid of the programmers they want to and keep the ones they want to ;).
    As a former recruiting manager and candidate for many positions, I’d completely agree with you that it’s a real nightmare. Most of the recruiters I’ve dealt with tend to be absolute spivs that are just thinking of their commission and seem to have no real understanding of a candidate’s experience, bar the buzzword bingo that sits in their resume.
    I’ve tended to find that a workable approach for recruiting technical staff is to create an experience profile for the roles that you are looking to fill. For example, if I was looking for an ‘experienced’ programmer that could come on-board and be left to develop, say, substantial functionality, that’s what I’d be looking for in resumes. It doesn’t matter what the job title is, it’s what they’ve actually achieved in their roles.

    • David Haney says :

      That makes you one of the good ones. For every one of you, unfortunately, there are fields of baddies. 😉

  2. Brian Roach says :

    I don’t disagree with a single point you’ve made about titles being meaningless in our industry. That said, I do take issue with the ridiculous claim about Stack Overflow Careers. Just today I received a standard cut/paste, loser recruiter email through it that had nothing to do with my skillset.

    Bad recruiters are like bad developers. There’s an enormous number of them [Citation: I ignore / delete countless copy/paste job descriptions sent on a monthly basis though the various networks (LinkedIn, mostly).

    Competent recruiters actually read your resume/profile and are able to understand what your skillset really is and if it’s suited for the position they’re looking to fill. They also search for technologies rather than titles. In addition, they don’t just copy/paste a job description into a message and say “Contact me”; they address you as a professional and make a case as to why you should be interested in talking to them.

    Recruiters searching on title and spamming me wit ha job description? I just delete it.

    Yes, the ratio is probably 10:1 in terms of things I don’t just immediately delete and something I’ll actually read … but in the end, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that hires people based on their title.

    • David Haney says :

      Could not have said it better myself. We do actually strive to ban recruiters who spam candidates on SO Careers, but it is currently a feedback-based, somewhat manual process. We of course strive to improve it, but I can see how you may have received such a template message. Thus my comment that we continue to improve the product. 🙂

      • Brian Roach says :

        Re-reading my comment, I didn’t mean it to come off as hostile as it was re: SO careers. I literally had *just* received that notice so it was fresh.

        A better comment would be, “Never underestimate the willingness of people bad at their job to waste your time”.

        I have a high rep on SO for Java which means … “Oh hey, he’s a Java guy. Must mean he’d be perfect for this CRUD / JSP job” … which is pretty much the opposite of what I do. But sadly, that doesn’t deter them.

  3. Ilana says :

    I know someone else with a title like yours. I wonder if he’d get Junior Developer offers too.

    Modest Job Title

  4. Jason Dusek says :

    Would document similarity scores be an appropriate way to detect template messages?

    • David Haney says :

      That is how I’d initially approach it for sure. A heuristic algorithm to check the similarity of contact requests, either per user or across all users as a spam guard.

  5. Brett says :

    Couldn’t agree more in general about recruiters. They’re just awful. Stack Overflow Careers is a great option…in theory, but in practice definitely has some flaws, with outdated profiles being by far the biggest. I posted a review on my blog a little while back.

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