From Company Recruiter to 'Nerd-Rustler'
By Mark Leibovich
Roughly translated, this means Fishman is a project manager at Completed Systems Inc., a Vienna-based computer services firm. He provides on-site technical support for clients in the Washington area.
His job sounds straightforward enough. But then, he utters his title.
"People laugh," Fishman said. "Then I have to explain what I do."
Like many technology workers, Fishman inhabits a world where innovation and confusion increasingly extend to job titles. Known in some management circles as "creative titling," this phenomenon has morphed yesterday's uninspired "engineers," "recruiters" and "personnel managers" into today's "chief techie geeks," "nerd-rustlers" and "directors of bringing in cool people" -- all real titles, at real companies, authenticated on real business cards.
Fishman's "senior completion specialist" label is more clinical than bizarre, especially by the standards of some technology offices, where titles are often inspired more by company humor than by practicality. They are hotbeds of "chief convomaniacs," "parrot trainers" and "news grunts," where titles have become a can-you-top-this art form by which techies can seize a byte of "mind-share." The titling craze flows along the continuum of casual dress, toy decorations and an overall nuttiness ethic that pervades so many tech offices.
But creative titling is not restricted to high-tech jobs. It is a byproduct of the same "death of the salesman" wave in Corporate America that has turned lowly sounding "clerks," "employees" and "sales aides" into "sales associates," "partners" and "team members."
These monikers foster an egalitarian feel to subvert hierarchical notions in the modern workplace, executives and management experts say.
"In the trend toward flatter management, there's been a lot of emphasis placed on titles," said Jane Weizmann, a human resources consultant in the Washington office of Watson Wyatt Worldwide. Weizmann said she's probably best known around the office as a "team leader for strategic rewards" in the "human capital" group -- although her business card simply lists her as "senior consultant."
"That's just a good example of why titles are so meaningless," Weizmann said.
Still, titles are being celebrated. Fast Company, a new-age business magazine that focuses on technology companies, champions the craft in a column called "Job Titles of the Future." Each month it profiles assorted "ministers of progress" (Scott Eriksson at Aspen Tree Software) "animation skeptics" (Jeff Pidgeon, Pixar Animation Studios) and "chief imagination officers" (Tom Grueskin, Gateway 2000 Inc.).
As companies compete for a scarce supply of technical workers, titles can be a good recruiting tool, they maintain.
"When I saw there was an opening for a 'fool's school principal' it looked like it would be a fun place to work," said Dayana Yochim, who subsequently got the job. She works at Motley Fool, an online financial publication in Alexandria, where she oversees an educational forum known as the "Fool's School" and shares an office with a "chief techie geek," "LAN/Database God" and "FoolWare techie programmer."
Her parents in Kansas are proud.
Like so much tech ingenuity, creative naming has its roots in Silicon Valley, home of "chief yahoos" (Yahoo Inc.), "lighting diva' (Pacific Data Images), "virtual reality evangelists" (Silicon Graphics Inc.) and "Ninjas" (Red Brick Systems Inc.).
"It's a total reflection on the culture here," said Jeff Hokit, an engineer (yawn) at Adobe Systems Inc. in San Jose. Because tech professionals tend to be solitary workers, Hokit theorizes, they have little use for titles. "I throw most of my business cards into those little fish-bowl things anyway," he said.
Apple Computer Inc. pioneered outlandish titles in the Valley, Hokit said. He worked there in the position of "jungle cruise guide." His colleagues included a "bad dog," a "displaced Lakers fan" and an "ex-softdrink executive."
His boss, former Apple chief executive John Scully, was called the "chief listener" (a precursor to Raul Fernandez, chief executive of Proxicom in Reston, who is sometimes called the "chief talker" in his office).
Titles can be fun and frivolous, because technology jobs are dynamic and prone to change, said Anne Crossman, president of Completed Systems. "On a given day, a person could be doing a million different things," she said. "In reality, titles really don't matter at all."
Indeed, some say, creative titling can serve insidious management purposes. "The oldest trick in the world is to give someone a fancy new title instead of a raise," said Eric Greenberg, director of management studies at the American Management Association in New York. "For example, I have the impression that anyone who works at a bank for more than three years automatically becomes a vice president."
Titles should be fluid and versatile, Greenberg said -- "whatever gets you in the door." In a previous job, he had six business cards, which he would deploy as the situation dictated. "Some people wouldn't speak to me if I was the public relations person," Greenberg said. "So I would instantly become the vice president of marketing."
Public relations professionals are evolving into "perception managers" and "reputation managers," Greenberg said, just as stewardesses have become "flight attendants" and secretaries are becoming "administrative assistants." Sun Microsystems Inc., for example, has a public relations person who calls herself "minister of propaganda."
Titles can be good pocket marketing tools. "It starts conversations and gets people asking questions about me," said Marty Katz, a Baltimore-based writer and photographer whose business cards say "Marty Katz, Crisis Management, Barbeque Research" (it's a long story).
Katz grew up wanting to be a doctor. But his grown-up mantle affords him small bits of immortality.
"Years later, people will remember me," he said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company