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2021-08-07

Why Your Job Title Matters


Recently, I happened to be "categorized" by my past and current job titles a lot, during the immigration and job interview process1. This experience makes me realized that adapting to a certain way of classification defined by someone else was a little discomfort.

Here, I strongly believe that entitling someone (or something) is a highly important and sensitive problem for the following reasons. Note that, although I'm writing about job titles, I won't discuss anything about seniority (e.g., Senior Software Engineer vs. Principal Software Engineer) in this post.

Our stereotype

Most importantly, people tend to read too much from a title itself based on their stereotype. Consequently, without having enough contextual understanding, showing a title possibly gives a wrong impression about you to strangers.

To give an example, if I introduce myself with a title as "I am a software engineer", what does that mean? It should indicate nothing other than a single fact that this person is "engineering software". However, in practice, you can easily imagine something else like This person can do programming, have a computer science degree, type a keyboard faster, ... no matter what the reality is.

To ensure accuracy, we often provide a detailed description of our job responsibilities, but the readers don't necessarily have to care about everything, especially when the title is something they're already familiar with. Eventually, job titles easily mislead people to interpret you unexpectedly, and the situation gets worse as your expertise becomes more complicated.

Job title as a boundary

Moreover, job classification narrows down the flexibility of how we work, and it forces us to be the person that fits its standard; we could naturally hesitate to do something different from the "typical" responsibility of the role with no reason.

For instance, when you are hired as a product manager, the typical jobs of product management surely become the majority of your day-to-day activities. They include but are not limited to meeting with customers, debating with stakeholders, and defining product requirements. However, the list doesn't necessarily have to accurately represent your skills and areas of interest. Even if you can write code, the job title commonly blinds you to a chance of engaging in such a non-standard activity.

Everyone is different, and different people have different backgrounds, interests, and known/unknown abilities to accomplish a specific task. In that sense, I feel the standardized job classification doesn't respect the uniqueness enough. Although the grouping strategy is vital for organizations to efficiently and effectively operate their business, it could potentially prohibit innovation unless interdisciplinary work is explicitly encouraged2.

How do you describe yourself?

For the reasons that I mentioned above, I'm uncomfortable with being classified by a single job title that isn't descriptive enough. Instead, I commonly introduce myself as "I am working on machine learning, data analytics, and product development", which is a bit wordy but does give more information about what I'm doing; my area of specialty and interests are the mixture of the ones represented by Software Engineer, Machine Learning Engineer, Data Scientist, and Product Manager.

Meanwhile, if you are truly unique, giving an uncommon job title to yourself could be a good strategy to make you stand out. As I described above, job titles influence how we're viewed by someone else and how we work. Therefore, a unique name gives you the power of opening a new field and pioneering what you love.

So, if I can freely choose my title, how will it be? Asking this question myself also enables rethinking what my uniqueness is and establishing self-confidence in the end.

1. For example, the Government of Canada uses the National Occupational Classification system to classify various occupations for the immigration assessment purpose. Meanwhile, the companies require me to submit a resume that contains information about my job history.
2. 20% Project can be a good example of how to overcome the issue.

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  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a software engineer based in Vancouver. I have worked as a full-stack software engineer, OSS developer, data scientist, machine learning engineer, and product manager for 6+ years.

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Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of organizations I am/was belonging to.

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