Quirky Job Titles

Image of a hand holding a blank business card

What Do You Do?

What’s your title at work?

I’m in my company’s books as a “Sr Java Developer.”  Other people on my team are “JAVA Developer,” “Senior Developer,” “Principal Java Developer,” “Java SOA Developer.”  We all do the same job, with the same level of autonomy and freedom.  At my last company, I was a “Senior Software Consultant.”  In other places, I might be a “Senior Software Engineer,” a “Java Rockstar,” or a “Senior Java Programmer.”  There are cases of companies completely eliminating titles, or removing meaning from titles and just titling everyone in meaningless categories, such as “blue,” “green,” or “red.”

What does a title really mean?

It used to be that a job title said two things about you: what you did, and how high up in the company hierachy you were.  A senior accountant was higher up in her chain of command than a junior sales associate was in his, and both of them are less important to their group than the principal engineer was to his department.  Today, there are two trends which work in slightly different ways: stripping meaning from titles by making them more fun, and inflating titles until they are nearly meaningless.

A lot of traditionalists are opposed to both of these trends, and a lot of people are firmly in favor, saying they bring fun and spontaneity to a company.  I’m a little more flexible in my thinking, because I think there are good and bad ways to play with titles.  I’m not a big fan of choose-your-own-title adventures that lead to your head of HR being called the “Posse Leader,” your junior engineer calling himself a “Code Lemur,” and the QA guy naming himself the “Broccoli Farmer.”  In order for titles to be useful, they have to be decipherable.  I also don’t like the trend toward calling everyone a “Director” or “VP”, because it makes understanding the organizational structure of the company difficult.  Titles have to serve the organization.

On the other hand, here are a few titles I’ve heard recently, tied to their more traditional names:
1. Customer Satisfaction Specialist (call center technicia)
2. Director of First Impressions (receptionist)
3. Ambassador of Buzz (social media PR specialist)

To me, a title is how you think of yourself as you fit in your company.  If I meet someone at a conference, and they ask, “What do you do?” my first answer will be, “I’m a Sr Java Developer.”  When I am sitting down to my work, I think about it from the perspective of a Sr Java Developer.  Even when I want to go above and beyond, my basis for exceeding expectations is that of a Sr Java Developer.

So how does a “Call Center Technician” fit into their company’s structure?  They answer customer calls.  Their main metric is going to be how many calls they answered.  By changing the title to “Customer Satisfaction Specialist,” you also shift their focus.  Now, their place in the company is meeting customer needs and turning dissatified customers into satisfied customers.  Their metrics are vaguer, tied in with keeping customers happy.  By changing the title, you have changed the way the employees think about themselves and their role in the company.

Psychology has shown that the way we think about ourselves has a profound impact on our emotions and our behavior.  The act of naming something transforms it.  When you hand out titles, consider three things: 1) Is this a decipherable title to outsiders? 2) Does the title accurately reflect our goals and priorities for the position? 3) Is this a job title that people would want to have?

What’s your job title?  What do you do?

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Contingency Planning and Out of Context Problems

Cortez and Montezuma in Mexico City

Cortez and Montezuma in Mexico City

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.  In 1518, the Aztec Empire was the strongest nation in their world.  While they had enemies, no one could really threaten them, and they were constantly growing.  Everything was green pastures and sunny skies.  Then Cortez showed up at the gates of Tenochtitlan.  Four years later, the Aztec Empire had become what would soon be called “New Spain.”

This has become the classic example of what we call an “out of context problem.”  An out of context problem is something for which we have no response, because the problem itself is something we could never have anticipated.  For the Aztecs, it was the Spanish, with their guns, their warships, their armor.  They had no answer to this, because it was too far outside their context.  They couldn’t even understand the problem, let alone evolve a solution in time.

When we do contingency planning in software development, we consider the problems that could crop up, and we work to address them.  At the most basic level, we consider equipment failure, which leads us to design backups.  We consider loss of personnel, and we make sure we have adequate documentation and knowledge sharing.  We consider illness or distraction, so we pad our estimates to allow for less than 100% efficiency.  Looking beyond that, we consider how we would respond to a loss of major clients, to a natural disaster, to a security leak.

No matter how good your contingency planning is, however, you cannot plan for the out of context problem.  That’s part of the definition: it’s the problem that ambushes you because you never knew it could exist.  It’s what happens when Congress passes a new law outlawing whatever technology you were using, or when the problem your software addresses is rendered obsolete by an industry shift.  It’s what happens when the tech bubble bursts, or when the collapse of the housing market leads to a collapse of major financial institutions and a tanking of the US economy.

So how do you prepare for the unpreparable?  Part of it is making sure you have enough resources to weather a temporary crisis.  If you’re operating payday to payday, you don’t have time to react strategically.  And strategic reaction is important, because adjusting to an out of context problem takes time.  Acting on instinct won’t help you, because your instincts are tied up in the context you know.  The first step to addressing an out of context problem will always be repairing your context.

How quickly do you adapt to change?  When you are confronted with a novel problem, do you try to fit it into a familiar box, even if it doesn’t really belong there?  Problem solving ability depends first and foremost on your ability to correctly assess and understand the problem.  If the Aztecs had realized that the world had changed under them, might they have made different decisions?

While you cannot plan for the out of context problem, you can prepare for it, by cultivating adaptability and flexibility, by having a solid escalation plan in place to get early information to the decision makers, and by having enough buffer to weather the inevitable transition time.

Sick days

It was release planning week.  We’d scheduled five days straight of nine-to-five meetings, with plans to revisit our team’s ground rules, reflect on the two-year process which had taken us to release one, look at the road map for the next five years, decide what our short- and mid-term goals were, and figure out which tasks should be our next priorities.  We’d flown several of our international team members to the States to get them in our time zone and in the room.  We had energy and momentum and enthusiasm.

And I was coming down with something.

I made it through Monday without any problems, but by Tuesday I had the tell-tale burning in the back of my throat which meant a bad cold was on it’s way.  I spent Wednesday chugging orange juice and decongestants.  By Thursday, I knew that I was really sick, and I had a decision to make.  Did I stick it out, or did I admit that I was sick and stay home to recover?

We all like to think of ourselves as indispensable, to believe that if we don’t show up to work on any given day, the wheels will grind to a halt, the building will catch fire and no one will know what to do, and the entire economy will collapse.  The terrorists will win.  The reality is that if you are legitimately that important to your team, you are not doing your job properly.  Handling crises is short-term thinking.  Making sure there are multiple people who can handle any crisis is long-term thinking.  Long-term thinking is how you work towards the future health and success of a company.

In my situation, it was less about indispensability and more about loss of control.  If I missed part of release planning, I wouldn’t get to have input into our goals.  I wouldn’t get to cast my yes or no vote on whether we were pushing too hard.  Worse, I wouldn’t get to hear the debate and have a chance to influence others to my way of thinking.  How much did I trust my teammates to have my back, to hear the same information that I would and make the best decisions for the team?

The answer for me was “not as much as I should have.”  I went to work on Thursday, despite the sickness.  I pushed through, unable to work nearly as well as I would have liked.  Since I was sick, I didn’t have much valuable input.  Instead, I sat in a small enclosed space with my coworkers, spreading germs and feeling miserable, and added very little to the discourse.  By Friday, it was no longer a choice: I could not go in, because by not taking care of myself, I had made myself much sicker than I needed to.  Weeks later, I am still paying for my decision to ignore my body’s needs.

I talk a lot about trusting my teammates, about being willing to let small groups of people make decisions for the team as a whole and then having faith in those decisions.  When it came down to it, however, I had a hard time stepping away from the whole team and letting the plan evolve without my input.

Do you have a hard time taking sick days at work?  Why do you feel like you can’t stay away?

Review: The Book of Hard Choices

I just finished reading The Book of Hard Choices, by James A. Autry and Peter Roy, and I find myself slightly dissatisfied by it.

It was a compelling read, certainly: I picked it up at my local library on a whim, but when I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.  Subtitled “How to Make the Right Decisions at Work and Keep Your Self-Respect,” it deals mostly in case studies, approaching ethical situations from specifics instead of generalities.  I found myself carried easily from one brief example to another, wondering how each person’s situation would play out: what would they decide?  How would it affect them?  From top CEOs of businesses everyone has heard of, to smaller niche players with names and brands obscured to protect privacy, the subjects of these studies faced tough choices and went with what felt right to them, risking profit, reputation, and legacy for their moral and ethical beliefs.

What bothered me was that as a whole, these case studies seemed to suggest that everything would work out fine.  As people chose to stand up to the bullying of their big customers, to hold to quality over cost in a competitive market, or to go against public opinion or industry standards, they were risking big things, but none of the case studies actually lost big on their big gambles.  Some people weren’t as successful as they might have been; some people missed promotions or passed up opportunities because of their choices, but the decisions were never the career-killers or company-killers that some ethical decisions end up being.

If you are a venture capitalist who made $250 million on a deal instead of $300 million because you stood by what you thought was right, you can look back and say, “I’d do it again.”  But there are people who made that choice and lost out much bigger.  If you are an employee who said, “We are doing something wrong, and if we don’t address it, I will have to tender my resignation,” your view of your decision will probably be different if your company says, “We’ll fix it,” than if they said, “Bye, then.”  Maybe the people in the stories told here would feel the same way if the outcomes had been different, but we don’t know that, because we weren’t shown those stories.

I think there is a case to be made that holding to your ethical beliefs is the right choice even if it means you lose your job, even if your company collapses, even if you are ridiculed in the public eye.  I just don’t think that Autry and Roy made that case.

“At the end of the day, I’m being paid to write code.”

“At the end of the day, I’m being paid to write code.”

I have heard that hundreds of times in my career, from people of all ages, genders, and nationalities.  It comes up when there’s a meeting that no one wants to attend.  “I don’t have time to waste on this; I’m being paid to write code.”  It comes up when there’s mandatory training for client audit purposes.  “They can’t expect me to find time for this; I’m being paid to write code.”  It happens when it’s time to write goals for the next fiscal year. “Goal: write more code.  Find way to avoid stupid goal-setting exercises.”  It happens when people are asked to do  routine paperwork, like timesheets, expense reports, or task board updates.

“At the end of the day, I’m being paid to write code.”  Everything else is useless garbage being imposed on you.  The code is the core of your purpose.

Have you ever said this?  If so, you’re wrong.

No matter what you may think you are being paid for, you are really being paid to support business operations in your area of specialization.

If your assignment is to develop an application, and you find one on the market that would meet all of your needs, and would cost less to buy and support than it would take to build and support it internally, you’re doing your job by bringing it to your boss’s attention, even if it means you don’t need to write any code.

When timesheets and expense reports don’t get filed on time, cost forecasting is happening off of flawed information.  Not only does it make extra work for people who need to remind their employees to file routine paperwork, but business decisions way over your head are being made based on bad data.  This happens when software engineers don’t do their job.

When task boards aren’t updated and daily records of work aren’t maintained, it takes more time and energy for everyone on the team to figure out what is going on.  Reports made to upper management take trickier calculations.  Calculations that should be simple and pulled straight from the task board are now fuzzier and harder to compute.

When training isn’t done, companies fail audits.  Sales people and CEOs have to scramble to hold onto customers.  Sometimes, revenue takes a hit.  Other times, relationships are left strained.  Other people have to cover for the people who didn’t do their training.

When people don’t attend meetings, or attend meetings and write code on their laptops, communication breaks down.  Messages have to be repeated over and over again.  People give up their chance to have input, and then don’t like the decisions that were made.  This leads to more work for management, more stress for your coworkers, and a worse working environment for you.

At the end of the day, a software engineer is being paid to do her entire job, not just the part of the job that she considers most intellectually challenging.

What’s your job?

Paying a Premium for Morality

I was listening to this week’s podcast of The Boss Show yesterday, where Steve and Jim discussed, among other things, the way that American consumers will go to great lengths to save small amounts of money, and so retailers keep cutting costs by slicing into the “human factor”: worker salary, worker safety, worker sanity.

Steve and Jim were talking in particular about the last of those three, using an example of a company which is tracking worker movements using electronic armbands and docking them efficiency scores on individual tasks for time spent in the bathroom.  Later in the day, I read another article, talking about how the cost to safely sew a $22 pair of jeans in Bangladesh is ninety cents.  For $0.90, we can pay for safe factories and workers who aren’t killed trying to earn a living.  But time after time, businesses ask factory owners to choose to shave ten, twenty, thirty  cents — that’s less than two percent of the sale price of the jeans — by cutting pay, increasing hours, and failing to take precautions to protect their workers.

There are a lot of angles from which we can look at this problem, but the one I’m most interested in is this: would we, as American consumers, actually have a problem with paying $22.30, instead of $22, if it meant that young women in Bangladesh weren’t in danger of being crushed to death when their workplace collapses on their head?  I don’t think that the answer is no, but I also don’t think it’s as simple as a clean yes, either.

Why do Americans buy hybrid cars?  Part of the reason is price: as the cost of a gallon of gas goes up and the gap between hybrid and non-hybrid cars shrinks, the trade-off looks more valuable.  But the sales pitches aren’t based on cost, they’re based on the “feel-good” factor.  It feels good to buy a car that isn’t burning as much gasoline.  It feels good to buy eggs from cage-free chickens, so grocery stores prominently advertise them.  It feels good to go solar.  It feels good to plant a tree.  It doesn’t feel good to pay more for the same pair of jeans.

It there a way to bring these questions more into the public eye?  If the Shop-o-value can offer jeans for $23, and the Save-lots can offer them for $21, our choice seems obvious, but we don’t see that the Shop-o-value is using cage-free chickens, whereas Save-lots is burning fossil fuel just because it’s fun.  On the other hand, I don’t think a sticker that says, “Treats workers humanely; no factory collapses since 1986,” is going to have the desired effect.  It’s hard to quantify the cost in human compassion and fairness in a way that the American consumer can apply to purchasing decisions.

Maybe there’s a need for a non-profit organization which can rate factories and farms on a human rights scale, handing out A and B and F ratings to companies who care and don’t care about the conditions in which their workers produce for them.  Maybe we can move towards a world in which a WorkerCare grade of A would be a prominent selling point for an item, like pesticide-free or cage-free.

What do you think?  Is there a place for morality in business?  How do we achieve the transparency that consumers would need to take working conditions into account?

Faking Motivation

Some mornings, I just don’t want to get out of bed.  The idea of going into work at all is totally unappealing, but the idea of continuing to collect a paycheck is not, so I haul myself up and make my way into the office.  But what then?  On unmotivated days, it’s easy to find myself staring off into space, searching for new LinkedIn connections, or doing endless cycles by the water cooler.  How do you keep yourself moving?  Here are a few things I do to kick-start my motivation.

Dress Up

My company is business casual, with an emphasis on the casual.  My typical workday wear is jeans or a skirt, a nice button-down shirt, and tennis shoes.  On low-motivation days, I take it up a few notches, picking out a suit or a dress-and-jacket combo and wearing heels to the office.  The clothes say, “I’m here to work,” and it has a psychological effect on me as well as the people around me.

Eat a Good Breakfast

I know I should eat a good breakfast every day, but in reality, I often settle for a handful of cheez-its, a lollypop, and a diet coke in the car.  On low-motivation mornings, though, I make myself eat something more substantial.  I’ll have some granola with milk, or pick up a breakfast sandwich on my way into the office.  Protein is particularly good at giving you an energy boost that will carry you through the morning.

Clean my Cubicle

I don’t exactly let my cubicle degrade to squalor, but on my desk at the moment, I have a stack of unused napkins leftover from shared cake last week, a few printed proofs from tests I was doing on Monday, and several pens, post-its, and notepads, none of them put where they belong.  When I am having a low-motivation day, I straighten up my cubicle as soon as I get in.  Clean space, clean mind?  Maybe, but I think it’s more likely that doing something a little bit physical with a concrete, visible effect helps rev me up for the day.

Start Small

I don’t try to tackle big tasks right away.  Instead, I build out my day’s list of tasks with some small, easy jobs leading into and scattered around the harder jobs.  As I finish the smaller tasks, momentum carries me from one assignment to the next, and once I’ve started the big tasks, they don’t seem so daunting.

How do you handle the days when you just don’t feel like showing up?