Title Inflation in Tech

Employee churn in tech is a big problem I observe during my career. I believe it was a problem far before I even started working and it will be a problem for the upcoming years. Side note: I choose “churn” over “attrition” as I feel it fits better regarding resources [1] [2].

With the effects of the global pandemic, churn slowed down for a period. When employees did not feel safe to move on, they decided to stay in the safe harbour. Also companies, due to lack of clear vision, decided to stop or slow down hiring. The new setup caused burnouts, physical and psychological stress to employees more than ever. And since summer 2021 the inevitable arrived. Some name it as Great Resignation [3] or Great Reshuffle [4] [5].

Those circumstances drive the situation something I would like to call “title inflation”. Of course, this term was not coined by me. [6]

Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

Title Diversity in Tech

There is no standard career path in tech. Job titles, expectations, salary levels, required experience levels and responsibilities vary hugely between companies. You can see a comparison of FAANG job titles in levels.fyi [7].

Promotion Decisions

I can count three different decision methods for promoting an employee. I will not discuss which method is correct or wrong here as this post does not aim to explain promotions in general. But let me briefly explain the methods I have observed and dive deep into the last one.

Butt Time [8] promotion, this promotion is solely based on years of experience (YoE). It reminds me of the promotion in an army. During my career, in some companies, I saw this method as the only method of promotion. E.g. after graduation one is a junior engineer, two years in the job they become an engineer, after two more years they jump to senior and so on. And for some companies, I saw this in the first steps. For instance, you start as a junior after two years you become an engineer and further promotions will be competence-based.

Competence-based promotion, in this model, companies have “somewhat” clear guidelines for each role level. E.g. a senior engineer should be able to lead a project across multiple teams etc. In theory, this method seems perfect, only the ones who deserve the next step is able to make the jump. But in practice there are gaps. How do you monitor an “ability to lead” for instance? How do you prove that? Some companies have methods like 360 evaluation, some companies put this burden on the engineering managers they prepare a case and ask for approval, some companies require engineers to apply for promotion then a committee evaluates. Still, I believe this is the best method even though the practical difficulties.

Marketing-based promotion, this model is the most elective one for the technically best engineers I saw. Most of the good engineers I met are humble, do not brag or show off. Unfortunately in this promotion model, the ones who show off get the next level. Even if they only achieve smaller things than the others. They have two great skills, business acumen and marketing which leads them to promote themselves in and out of the company finally letting them get to the next level. This can be mixed up with the competency-based model, but the difference in my opinion is the output produced by the engineer.

Promotion as a solution to churn

As Great Reshuffle hits the shores of tech companies, they aim to keep the talent in the company as much as they can. Because hiring is too expensive. Hiring means engineering time spent in the interviews, opportunity cost due to lost productivity etc.

Companies started to increase the salaries and benefits of tech employees, but hey they can not give XX,XXX€ salary to a senior engineer, that bar is too high for this level. Then they decided to give out promotions Senior Engineers are becoming leads, architects or principals. So the company can match the monetary expectations.

And this resulted in what I meant with “title inflation”. In some interviews or in some companies we see Senior Engineers who can not draw a solution, Principal Engineers who can not design a system or leads who can not communicate with their team.

Also, we see this method as a way to speed up talent acquisition lately. Due to the Great Reshuffle, some companies just throw in title and compensation packages [9] to convince candidates.

Conclusion

On one hand, I don’t want to lose any colleagues due to the fact they want more money. On the other hand, I don’t find it correct to promote incapable engineers to the next step until they collect the necessary experience.

This brings me to a solution offering, which is raising the salary bands for the existing roles. This solution highly depends on my belief that most engineers do not really care about titles. As I said titles vary hugely in different companies so being a Senior in Company A or being a Principal in Company B may not have any difference as long as they earn the same.

In contrast, I can understand the employer. When it comes to “competitive salary levels” the sky is the limit and there is a border where the value provided by an engineer becomes less than their cost. So they can not keep raising the bands.

I really wonder what will the future bring in sense of titles and their expectations? What do you think?

References

[1] https://lattice.com/library/turnover-vs-attrition-decoding-two-of-hrs-most-important-metrics
[2] https://sprigghr.com/blog/hr-professionals/employee-attrition-vs-employee-turnover/
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Resignation
[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcperna/2021/11/09/4-ways-the-great-reshuffle-can-help-us-reimagine-the-employer-employee-dynamic/
[5] https://www.businessinsider.com/ceos-burning-out-joining-great-reshuffle-2021-11
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_title_inflation
[7] https://www.levels.fyi/?compare=Netflix,Google,Apple,Amazon,Facebook&track=Software%20Engineer
[8] https://linearb.io/blog/improve-developer-productivity-with-brain-time/
[9] https://twitter.com/rakyll/status/1456673672849068039

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s