My friend Taylor is, in his own words, a “Supervisor, comma, of Production Project Management,” at a major tech company. His previous title was Digital TV/Video Programming Operations Specialist at one of the largest media companies in the world. “Technically, there’s a comma, VOD [Video on Demand], at the end. So really it was Digital TV/Video Programming Operations Specialist, comma, VOD,” he says. “But that was obnoxious. So I’d just keep the other one.”
He’s right of course — that “comma, VOD,” was obnoxious. The other descriptors in his job title however, well, they’re obnoxious too, but only in that management jargon, title-whoring millennial workplace sort of way. For those unacquainted with the “let’s throw a bunch of technically meaningless but good-sounding operational words at the wall in hopes that one of them sort of vaguely infers what this employee (read: poor bastard) is supposed to tell people when they ask him or her what they do for a living,” here’s an efficient explanation from Taylor, who warns, “I can’t really tell people what I do in a concise manner.”
“I have to get into, like, the product itself, and basically, I guess the version I usually give them is like, we make too much content in-house to absorb it internally,” he says. “So what I’m responsible for is actually hiring freelancers to help build our learning products to help funnel content through them. So we shoot a course, and it’s mostly in post production, but also production as well. But I’ll go out and find these freelancers that can help edit our course for us, can help process the audio and help design the graphics, can help copyright the slides.”
In more straightforward lingo, Taylor “basically finds people.” “I work with a lot of freelancers and contractors,” he says. “But it’s very confusing to explain. Nobody really understands it.” Which is why he normally beats around the bush. “Usually I’ll kind of just default to, ‘I’m a project manager,’” he says. “If they’re old, I’ll be like, ‘You know, in the digital space.’”
Far from sounding absurd, in 2019, this is just the norm. After all, do you know what any of your friends — particularly those “in the digital space” — actually do for a living? Probably not. In fact, an entire generation of white-collar folks with degrees from universities they still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to are following in the fabled corporate lore of Chandler Bing — the 1990s sitcom character whose actual occupation remains ever an enigma to even his closest “friends.”
But Chandler Bing is a fictional character whose job title is part of a running joke about how no one knows what he actually does apart from the fact that he works in an office. On the other hand, the “digital space” is responsible for employing millions of real-life people who are assigned titles like Head of Workplace Solutions Digital Analytics Strategy. Which is to say that the least talked about contagion of said digital space is that it has spawned a million Chandler Bings — a phenomenon that isn’t completely void of reason, according to career advice expert for TopResume Amanda Augustine.
Augustine says that when she hears long job titles, it sounds like companies are trying to include any and all of the keywords they think a qualified job seeker might use when searching a job board for an opportunity. She also thinks these titles aren’t necessarily helpful for employees when looking for a new gig. “Sometimes these titles won’t make sense outside of the organization,” she says. “In those instances, when job seekers are looking for a new position, I’d encourage them to put a translation of sorts for the job title in parentheses next to the official title on their resume.”
Taylor, who as a manager is responsible for contributing to these ever-germinating “what the fuck does that mean” job titles (“You throw a bunch of darts at the wall and see what sticks,” is how he describes the process of coming up with them), believes that they do serve a purpose. The practice of plating people’s job titles on a bed of strategically complicated verbiage, he says, is a necessary part of maintaining a somewhat methodical chain of corporate command. “Keep in mind, a lot of the actual titling has to do with company requirements, because there has to be a career ladder in place,” he explains. “That’s a whole other element. Once you become a manager, there’s so many guidelines, especially with payment quartiles and just how you go about getting somebody a raise, and a promotion, and career trajectory, and career growth, and having a finite career ladder that people can strive to grow up. So you kind of have to have that in place before you start coming up with titles.”
Augustine agrees, further noting that traditionally, job titles existed to clearly describe not only the job you hold, but your place within an organization’s hierarchy. “However, as companies have become flatter and millennials have flooded the job market, job titles have evolved,” she says. “Organizations have created new levels and/or opted for more creative titles in an effort to attract and retain younger talent. In some ways, job titles have become marketing ploys; apparently, a job listing for a ‘tax wrangler’ is more appealing than a ‘tax associate.’”
To that end, Taylor is far from the only employee fastened to a title more apt to serve as the lettered equation for nuclear fusion, than a guy who manages a bunch of freelancers in the digital space. “I’m a Director of Customer Insights Analytics and Strategy,” says a woman who works at a marketing company. “Also, I’m a fraud.” Although she’s able to characterize her role more succinctly than Taylor — “I work on the client team and every week, I help our clients understand what’s working and what’s not. I manage the budget and help make changes and give recommendations to their marketing plan based on our analytics tool”— she also admits that the “director” part of her title is “sort of a farce” since she’s not at the level where she can confidently say that she’s remotely good at analytics. “I feel like I’m faking it,” she admits. “To say I’m really great at analytics is a stretch.”
Still, she says her title is relatively common for people with MBAs. Furthermore, she acknowledges that, especially at startups, her title is mainly something to strive toward. “I work at a startup so it’s different than being a director at a big company,” she says. “I don’t have any direct reports. I don’t even have a team.”
A Senior Inside Sales Specialist at another major tech company (who tells me it’ll be easier to explain what he does if he starts with explaining what a non-senior Inside Sales Specialist does, but then finishes that description with, “Usually I just tell people I’m in sales”), also admits that the whole title thing is “generic” and “means fuck-all.” “I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what my boss [a Program Manager] does,” he says. “I know that he’s responsible for managing the people to create sales interest. I don’t know why he’s in 600 meetings every day.”
This trend has certainly not gone unnoticed. As Stefan Stern notes in his 2017 piece for The Guardian, that same year, The Daily Mail called out the BBC’s increasingly absurd practice of assigning elaborately meaningless job titles. Stern, the co-author of Myths of Management, specifically reports that the issue came to a head when the BBC had labeled one of its vacant positions as “identity architect.” “It’s fair to say most of us would struggle to describe what an ‘identity architect’ is: this job title does not pass the Ronseal test,” he writes. “The same might be said of ‘service desk subject matter expert’ or ‘thematic research manager.’” Still, Stern admits that even when organizations use normal job titles, “the reality of working life there is far more elusive and difficult to pin down,” he writes.
Augustine says that job titles have always been subjective and are becoming increasingly meaningless. “A Vice President at a Fortune 500 company is going to have a different job description and receive a different level of compensation than, for example, a VP at a 10-person startup,” she says. “Job titles vary in meaning from company to company and also from industry to industry. Professionals will get a better understanding of a job opportunity if they focus their attention on the scope of the role and on the skills and experience requirements, rather than the job title that’s published.”
Taylor agrees, saying that titles have everything to do with where you work, and therefore, can be hyper specific to the size of a company. “I meet people who are 22 years old and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m the Director of Development.’ I’m like, ‘Director of Development? Do you realize that at my company that would mean that you oversee a thousand people?’ That’s at least a minimum of 10 years away for me.”
In short, the modern practice of playing Scrabble with people’s titles has led us here, this wait-what-do-you-do-again point in corporate-capitalist history, where job titles have gone so rogue that even the folks on the “inside” can’t tell us what their colleagues do from the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Somewhere out there, Chandler Bing is working. What he’s working on, exactly, remains a mystery.