10% Engineer Musing: Title is Overrated
And what you should optimize instead
An HBR article talked about that you should not use titles to guide your job search. Reading into the article I got the inspiration to discuss this matter even further: why I think titles are overrated. Let’s start with a true story that happened to me around 4 years ago.
I was entering this big room when I was asked to conduct a “Pirate (M)” interview, a design system interview for managers. I was welcomed by the previous interviewer, who conducted a coding interview question (apparent from the writing and pseudocodes on the whiteboard), and a middle-aged man with a buttoned-up shirt, chinos, and a pair of leather dress shoes. We introduced each other, confirmed that he’s the right candidate that I was supposed to be interviewing. I followed up with a question that was meant to confirm that I should be interviewing him for “Pirate (M)” interview and not “Pirate” interview (the bar for the two interviews were different. Facebook expected managers to be a bit rusty so they lowered the bar on some aspect of the interview).
Me: you are a manager, right?
Him: no, I am a director.
Me: oh, I meant you’re interviewing for a manager position, right?
Him: hmm, really? Might wanna check with the recruiter.
After the interview, I got curious and read the resume (for system design questions you don’t have to know the candidate's prior knowledge, so I didn’t read his resume before I did the interview).
Current: Director of Engineering at S**sf**ce. Responsible for X area with 14 recursive reports.
Then I checked the position he’s interviewing for:
Target level for candidate: M1
M1 at Facebook is an entry-level manager position who manages 5-10 engineers. Directors at Facebook usually manage 100+ recursive reports.
The point that I am trying to bring here is less about comparing company, their titles, and which one is better. I want to bring an instance where titles meant different things between one company and another. The big title (director) doesn’t always translate to higher compensation and scope compared to the smaller one (manager). You can crosscheck levels.fyi to see the factual data. Another example is me. Currently, I am supporting 60+ engineers as VP of Engineering in Indonesia and I got paid 1/10th of my total compensation when I was a software engineer at Facebook in Seattle, supporting 15+ engineers.
A high title can also be a massive nuisance. For example, if you put your title as CTO on LinkedIn you will be bombarded with random cold-caller trying to sell you their products/SaaS.
Pro-tip: unless your company need a CTO for branding purpose, set your title as Head of Engineering or VP of Engineering. Leave possibility for the cold-caller to think that you're not the one who make the final say in decision making.
So what matters?
There are several things that dictate your day-to-day at work:
Job scope and expected responsibility, influence, and impact
Role and authority
These factors are not necessarily correlated to each other (e.g. higher scope doesn’t always mean higher compensation). These are factors you can choose when you’re finding/choosing your job (assuming you’re desirable enough to have choices).
After interviewing you often get a sense of not only your job title, but also your expected compensation, job scope, role, and public perception (or these usually are written in the job description). The key takeaway is to be aware of these factors and optimizing them based on what you want in your career vs just optimizing for the title.
Titles are not entirely useless though
It’s not that title is entirely useless. Titles boost your ego. People will look up to you as a VP of Engineering even though you only have 2 recursive reports: 1 frontend engineer, and 1 intern. Sometimes it feels good to not get asked to fix your uncle’s printer because even your uncle understands that fixing printers is not the VP of Engineering’s job.
Titles will still give you a pass to enter “the room” where you will be given more scope and opportunities. For example, the moment I was promoted to E5 at Facebook, I was immediately added to all strategy meetings by my manager even though theoretically at Facebook the promotions are lagging (means you already perform at the next level first before you get promoted). As an E6, I was suddenly added to performance review calibration meetings.
Titles also help you sell. For example, some companies will need to have a CTO (even though he/she is not performing as one) just because it’s the common language spoken by investors and venture capitalists to determine whether you got your tech team together. Some companies adopt a dual-title system, internal and external ones, so that we can use different titles during a sales pitch with clients. Because who wants to be served by a mere software engineer? Give me your VP or Head of Engineering at least!
So what’s my recommendation as a 10% engineer? Get the highest compensation possible, job scope depending on your stage in life and career (bigger if you are early in career and wanna learn, lower if you have other priorities in life, ready to be 10% engineer, with some risk to get fired due to underperforming), mid-level role and authority (not too high that you’re highly scrutinized, not too low that you don’t have influence), low public perception, and finally lowest title as possible to satisfy above requirements.