Monday, November 18, 2013

What's in a title?

Throughout my career I've seen a common detrimental pattern that I think needs some clarification. That pattern is an engineer who has great technical ability focusing on getting a specific title in order to exert more influence in the organization. They seek a specific title in order to justify their place in an organization or amongst a specific peer group.

In essence they're attempting to use a title to define who they are rather than who they have been. What I mean by that is that they need to already be meeting the expectations of a title before they actually earn that title.

Anytime you interact with someone else professionally you need a common understanding of what a reasonable expectation is of that person's capabilities. Many times this starts with the persons role in the organization, which is defined by their title. A persons title sets the bar for what a reasonable level of expectation of duty or performance is.

Because of this many young engineers seek specific titles in order to change or expand their role within the organization. Often they believe their title is a limiting factor in their ability to influence decisions being made on their team or in their organization. They believe that, if they only had a different title, they would have more influence or more ability to set direction within an organization.

A persons title is meant to reflect their current capabilities and their current sphere of influence. In order for them to be successful their title must be a reflection of who they have been not who they are working to become. That's why focusing on achieving a title to provide that clarity is actually detrimental to them actually being successful.

The concrete bar for a title'd position will be different from organization to organization and business unit to business unit, but each title'd position should have a general bar associated with it. That general bar should be determined by the characteristics of the position, the ability of the individual, and the influence the individual should be able to exert amongst their peers and those those that are senior to them.

Characteristics Of The Position

Each position has ideal characteristics associated with it, the depth of which is determined by the seniority of the position. Those characteristics define expectations around communication, self management, team interaction, ability to manage up, and etc.

Ability Of The Individual

Every engineer should be able to implement solutions using industry patterns and best practices. Every engineer should be able to grasp what's needed in order to validate their solutions. The more senior an engineer is the higher the expectations should be that they can identify and implement those patterns and practices, they can design and architect the correct solutions, and they understand and can implement validation of those solutions at the right level.


Each position has a level of expectation around what their sphere of influence should be. The more senior the position the broader the sphere of influence within the team, the organization, and the business unit.

A title case study: Senior Engineer

Common misconceptions of what it means to be a senior engineer

Being a senior engineer has a general bar associated with it. A common misconception I've seen in our industry associated with the senior title is that it's based on the number of years a person has been in the industry. There are a lot of engineers that believe that after they put in N number of years they're automatically a senior. Another common misconception is that the senior designation is based mostly on technical ability. I've seen countless numbers of engineers that believe that just because they're technically more proficient than their peers, and often as technically proficient as other seniors, that they also deserve a senior title.

Why being a senior isn't only about how much time you've put in

Time doesn't provide any accurate assessment of where a person is at in achieving the characteristics of their position. Time alone doesn't make you a better communicator. It doesn't teach you how to be effective on a team. It doesn't provide you the discipline necessary to be a good self manager. Time doesn't make you more or less successful in managing up.

Time can be helpful and detrimental in helping you build the characteristics needed to be successful at the next level. For example, time can help you to learn to communicate better by giving you more opportunity to practice your communication skills in different scenarios with different audiences. It can also give you more opportunity to reinforce the bad habits of communication that you've been using your entire career.

Time, if used wisely can be a real an opportunity to learn, grow, and start practicing performing at the next level.

Why being a senior isn't only about technical proficiency

Technical proficiency is about a persons ability to solve the problems they face as an individual contributor. These problems may be domain specific, specific to the technology stack they're working on, or may be general to their industry. What technical proficiency doesn't measure is a persons ability influence their peers, their seniors, or those they're senior to. It doesn't provide a measure of how well the person inspires others or communicates. It doesn't provide a measure of their understanding of the business or their ability to manage trade offs or make tough decisions.

What it really means to be a senior

So what does it mean to be a senior?

It means you've grown in the characteristics necessary to make you successful in your current role. You've looked for and taken advantage of opportunities presented to you to practice working with people in all levels within your organization. You've practiced communicating differently and effectively depending on your audience. It means that you're able to manage your time well and able to not get rat-holed into a specific problem or side tracked by the next shiny object.

It means being technically proficient. Being able to identify best practices and patterns in the industry. Being able to implement those patterns and practices yourself but also being able to let someone else implement them differently than you would have. It means being able to understand that there is a difference between the minimal viable product and the ideal product with all the bells and whistles.

It means being able to understand your organizations landscape. You have to be able to identify the key influencers and build alliances with them. It means being able to become one of those key influencers. It means being able to get people to want to follow you without you having to ask or tell them to follow you.


  1. Paul, this is Pradeepa. I never thought about this point - "What technical proficiency doesn't measure is a persons ability influence their peers, their seniors, or those they're senior to". To some extent, I can influence my peers. How can I go and influence my seniors and their seniors too, especially if you are in a low level? I hardly talk to them.

    And, I really like this point too - "It means being able to get people to want to follow you without you having to ask or tell them to follow you". Personally, I have followed other senior developers' principles if i like them and it truly shows that they are key influencers :)

    1. Pradeepa, I think the first key (and probably most important key) to managing up is understanding what drives the other person. If you understand what they're trying to achieve and what they value it's easier to help align your goals with theirs. If you're able to align your goals then they're going to be more willing to help you achieve your goals.