Job titles are signposts

In the “Lets Make Mistakes” podcast, episode 50, there was a listener question that prompted a characteristic rant from Mike Monteiro. To paraphrase, the question was, “If you create wireframes, are you are designer?”, to which Mr. Monteiro became very heated in explaining that if you are helping to solve the problem at hand, then yes you are a “designer”, because you are designing solutions to problems. End of story.

I understand Monteiro’s line of argument very well, as it is something I have argued myself many times. He is adamant that no time should be spent on figuring out job titles. We should just unify in solving the problem. Makes perfect sense. I always hated being in an environment where a) there were titles next to names on office doors or cubicle badges and b) people aspired only to have their name next to that title instead of actually doing a good job. However I think there is a deeper point being missed here.

The phrase “to explain the problem is to start to solve the problem” immediately rang around my head as Mr. Monteiro picked up speed. The need to create job titles such as Information Architect, User Experience Designer and Content Strategist, is part of the process of understanding the problem. Roughly 5-7 years ago there was a burst of interest in Information Architecture. As websites grew, and the web matured, organizations realized that there was a mess of incongruent information on their web holdings, and no unified pattern of navigation. So, Library Sciences emerged from the physical bookshelves and started applying similar rigor to the web. Yes we gained a job title that may seem superfluous, but underlying this was a need to start thinking about the organization and navigation of information on the web in a more holistic fashion.

Looking back over the last 2-3 years there has been a similar surge in interest around Content Strategy. As the “content first” argument picked up traction, so a new specialist profession was born of people who do not manage content and it’s creation, but instead strategize around what that content should be, and to what broader organizational goal it should serve. Had people always been doing this job? Yes, absolutely. But was it common practice? Absolutely not. Hence a new job title and consulting business space was created to specifically serve and evangelize this need.

Now take User Experience (UX) and we see the same pattern. To again paraphrase Monteiro, “everyone is having a user experience, whether they are using the train or buying a coffee, so what the hell does a UX Specialist do?”. Well, as aggravating as the title may be, appending “UX” to a title is an implicit acknowledgement that the correct strategic dissemination and organization of information on your site is not enough for it to be successful. It is the physical embodiment of the realization that there is an emotional component to your website or application, and somebody needs to take responsibility for that.

If that person is called a “Designer” then great, just so long as there is someone or process to deliver on that, then who cares what they are called. Job titles in many way are signposts along the way to a better understanding of how to build and manage engaging websites and applications. They may represent a bureaucracy and hierarchy, and the many big business negativity that comes with that. But they can also represent the progression of understanding in the field.

Finding something to get behind

I just started a new job with Braintree as a Product Manager.

Thanks for reading!

Well, actually that is not all I wanted to say.  I have been mulling over what my work-life motivations were ever since deciding to look for a Product Manager job.  In my previous role I was a Project Manager / Business Analyst / QA / Engagement Manager for a small tech consultancy.  Basically I was the only non-dev on a project, and managed everything from client relationships and expectations, contracts and billing, through grasping and defining the requirements, testing and shipping the finished product.  It was a hands-on position that  really I enjoyed, and I learned a helluva lot.

As I approached the 2 year mark however, I felt an ever-growing need to pair the ownership and responsibility for projects I already had, with a broader sense of purpose and drive about why I was doing it.  I wanted to feel like I was contributing to more than a bottom-line of billable hours-per-client, which is what it always seemed to boil down to in consulting.  It’s not that we didn’t care about what we built for our clients, and when we were building them, they were our babies, but the hand-off at the end often resulted in a sadness for me, because I saw that as really only the beginning.  I wanted to dig in to analytics of usage, talk to users, and work to improve what we had built.  But often you were either not given the chance, or if you were, you may not agree with the direction being dictated by the client, you were just happy if you won the contract.

I decided to move to the product side, to find that broader purpose.  I wanted to find somewhere that would give me the responsibility and ownership I already had at the project level, and also give me a seat at the table for the broader, long-term strategic plan for the product or service as it evolves.  I wanted to join a team that was passionate, and cared about more than fulfilling hours obligations and satisfying the client, but instead constantly improving the product and delighting users or customers.  The difference between satisfying and delighting is crucial. However I had to tread carefully, and not walk from a great job in to a bad situation.

So I scouted out the Chicago landscape, and kept a close watch on the burgeoning start-up and tech scene.  The Built In Chicago site was a particular focus, but I also continued to attend the Agile Project Managers and Ruby meetups when I could, keeping my ear to the ground of who was doing good work, who was happy and who was not, and which products or services were making a splash.  Slowly, I constructed my list of target companies.  Looking back on which companies made that list, the one key component they all had was personality.  The characters of the people who worked there shone through on their website, or blog, or in job descriptions, and that was as, if not more, important than the product itself.  It indicated to me that the company saw the people who worked their as the primary asset, and my guess is that the people who worked there would in turn reciprocate this focus by caring about the product too which they were devoting their working life.

Braintree made the list early on.  Their team page was a good start, but they were active in the open source and Chicago tech community and the Founder, Bryan Johnson, was vocal about wanting to build a company that would be the best place he ever worked, as well as the best product in it’s sector. Fortunately I made the cut when they posted a Product Manager job, and I am just finishing week 3.  It is a wonderfully liberating place to work, that encourages freedom of expression, hard work and play, and passion for the cause.  Somehow, the payment gateway service doesn’t seem like a dry area of business at all, and to someone who is almost allergic to the word “finance”, that is a high compliment indeed.

I know I am in my honeymoon period, so feel free to take this 3 week assessment of my new awesome job with a pinch of salt.  But I think what is important, and something I took away from my last job and the whole process of deciding what to do next, is that I wanted to find something to get behind.  I don’t necessarily want strong leadership or management (however that obviously plays a part), but instead I want a clear purpose, a sense of personal control and freedom within boundaries, and the feeling of belonging to a cause.  Braintree is delivering so far, and long may it continue.  But regardless, I feel I have made an important personal decision about how I want to shape my working life, whether it be working for a company or running my own.

Some outside influences should be mentioned that helped me define this vision of my working life, so here is the list in case your interested: