Your Job Title Is … What?
Late last summer, I traveled to San Francisco to give a talk at a conference on corporate communications. There, one speaker identified herself as a “corporate storyteller.” Her job, she explained, is to help companies develop a “humanizing narrative.”
Next up was a “story strategist,” who advises brands on how technology can help them tell such narratives. Both used pictures of cave paintings in their presentations to emphasize humankind’s ancient connection to the craft.
Batting third was Robert Scoble, a “futurist” at a cloud computing company called Rackspace. Mr. Scoble showed slides of virtual reality headsets, and a device that looked something like a TV remote control that will provide detailed information about objects around you.
“You can aim it at a box of Cheerios, or even a dog,” he told the audience, then referred to the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, saying, “It’s going to be huge at C.E.S.”
I don’t mean to judge — my own job is hardly less opaque. I am the vice president for content at Contently, a company that helps brands expand their content online and publishes commentary on the changing media landscape (including that of The New York Times). Or, as my mom tells her friends, “Sam works for one of those start-up companies that nobody knows what it does.”
Me and everybody else, it seems.
I have had meetings with brand ambassadors (a bit like celebrity endorsers, but with more tattoos). I have coffee with thought leaders (those with “authority” in a given field) and customer happiness managers. (Your guess is as good as mine, but I assume that it used to be called “customer service.”)
A few months ago, I walked into a company where the sign on the receptionist’s desk identified her as the “head of office experience.” A friend worked in a company whose human resources manager was called, simply, “VP, people.”
And don’t get me started on how many “influencers” and “trend strategists” I have met, few of whom can describe with any degree of coherence what it is they do each day. I bet their moms don’t know either.
“I’m personally branding myself according to what I want to do in the world,” said Maya Zuckerman, a transmedia producer (that is, a producer who works across digital platforms) whose LinkedIn profile identifies her as a “Media Entrepreneur, Story Architect, Culture Hacker.” “But to be honest I change the title on my LinkedIn every few months and try to see what hits.”
My younger brother is a lawyer, with no such issues.
Job titles as we traditionally know them — vice president for marketing, or East Coast sales manager — emerged in the 1930s as a way to define roles in organizations that were becoming increasingly complex, said Peter Cappelli, the director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
That started to change in the 1990s, when employees began to be concerned with how their job titles might be interpreted.
“There was a time,” Dr. Cappelli said, “when employees actually had two sets of business cards: one that identified you within the company, and another for people on the outside.”
These days, two business cards would hardly be enough. Employment is ever more fragmented, freelance, entrepreneurial and digitally focused, and there are plenty of jobs that never existed before.
In many cases, the roles are changing faster than the titles can even reflect.
“I don’t really know anyone with a traditional title anymore,” said Leslie Merinoff, a former brand manager whose current title at the Noble Experiment NYC, the Brooklyn-based rum distillery, is “Thing 2” — a reference to “The Cat in the Hat.”
“我身边已经没有拥有传统职务头衔的人了，”莱斯利·莫林诺夫(Leslie Merinoff)说，她曾经是品牌经理，如今，在布鲁克林的朗姆酒酿酒厂“纽约尊贵体验”公司，她的职务是“Thing 2”，这个名字是从《戴帽子的猫》(The Cat in the Hat)里来的。
“My boss was having a hard time figuring out what the titles should be, so she told me to come up with one that would encompass everything I’m doing,” Ms. Merinoff explained. “And Dr. Seuss had a really big influence on my life.”
The company was founded in 2012, which may help explain the laissez-faire attitude. Start-ups often bear the brunt of the blame for the sheer range of bizarre jobs, and often for good reason. They start small, with little to no structure and roles that shift week to week as the company evolves.
In such a company, you can go from being the chief marketing officer in a morning meeting to the head of business development in an afternoon sales call.
In that kind of environment, a title seems like at best an afterthought and at worst a hindrance. (Early-stage start-ups are often populated by iconoclastic types, as well — which may help explain the preponderance of “wizards,” “ninjas” and “hackers.”)
But mystifying job titles have spread far beyond the start-up universe.
A search on LinkedIn reveals that over 55,000 people have the word “influencer” in their titles; there are more than 74,000 brand architects and 35,156 professional evangelists. (LinkedIn doesn’t break down how many of those evangelists are associated with an actual religious congregation, but I suspect it is relatively few.)
Now, certainly, there is a bit of willful fakery at work. I have known a company where an intern moonlit as the head of marketing, and another where an employee was the editorial director … of an editorial team of one. And there is a whole universe of solo practitioners in a variety of business arts who have a vested interest in making themselves sound as impressive as possible.
“If given the opportunity, why wouldn’t I choose the most senior title possible?” joked Chris Mohney, the former editor in chief of Tumblr. (He had a team of three.)
Yet it is also true that changing titles reflect real shifts in how businesses operate and, let’s be honest, a very real need to reimagine traditional roles, especially in jobs that involve managing people or that require creativity, according to Dr. Cappelli.
Sure, it may cause confusion for those used to more traditional gigs. One journalist I know went as far as to create an FAQ page on her website to describe a new job at a tech company.
But an inflated title can also be a signal that a company is taking a given function seriously, Dr. Cappelli said. That woman with the Skrillex haircut and “Crayon Evangelist” on her business card may just have the ear of the C.E.O.
As for myself, I will admit that I have drawn my fair share of Venn diagrams on whiteboards and had plenty of meetings about meetings — none of which would have helped my mom understand my job at all.
“I think the vice president of the content is like something from ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ ”she told me a few weeks ago. “Like the guy that runs the alphabet and is in charge of the letters that make the words. You’re like the head of the alphabet.”
“我觉得内容副总裁有点像《幻像天堂》(The Phantom Tollbooth)里的东西，”几星期前，她对我说，“就像里面那个管理字母表，管理那些组成单词的字母的人。你就是字母表的头子。”
“Well, I guess the vice president of the alphabet.”