The boring titles are back.
When we reached that moment in 1999 and early 2000 when it seemed like anyone with a half-baked idea could start an Internet company, we also saw a revolution in the way mainstream businesspeople defined their roles in an organization. Just as e-commerce appeared to dramatically expand the ways companies could generate revenue, dot-com executives wanted to show that traditional terms like chief executive officer no longer reflected the depth of their contribution to their firms. The new economy brought new rules; new titles seemed a natural consequence. Finally, people were actually looking at each other’s business cards before they threw them in the garbage.
In 2001’s back-to-basics climate, the eccentricity of these titles now seems like an early sign of the wool being pulled over venture capitalists’ eyes. Today, calling yourself “chief acceleration officer” (as someone in a company called Human Code apparently does) just sounds like someone who got tired of being called a vice-president of research and development. It’s a rebranding strategy to generate excitement around a person or company and thereby obscure some of the less interesting but infinitely more practical details about their business. In a word, hype.
In just a few years of high-tech reporting I’ve come across a number of unusual job titles that once raised eyebrows but which now make eyebrows roll. Here are a few favourites:
Chief Innovation Architect: Used by Vicki Saunders, formerly with Toronto-based incubation firm the NRG Group. Saunders was co-CEO with two other people, both of whom used titles (“Chief Wealth Officer” instead of CFO) that were almost maddeningly cutesy. Saunders remains on NRG’s board of directors but no longer runs the company.
Chief Transcendental Officer: Belonged to Tao Chen of Timeismoney.com, a startup developed by the NRG Group. Anyone see a pattern here?
Chief Lateral Officer: The title of Len Kofman, another Timeismoney.com executive who didn’t look old enough to drink. At least they didn’t appoint a Chief Horizontal Officer.
E-Commerce Engagement Manger: From the business card of Melissa A. Campell. She worked for Netera, which promised “Network Solutions for the Interprise Era.” No, I didn’t spell “enterprise” wrong. And no, their URL no longer works.
Special Agent: Used by public relations staff at security firm Zero-Knowledge Systems (The company was among the first I know of to create a Chief Privacy Officer, however).
I could go on — and on — but I’m sure most readers already have many examples of their own (if so, send them to me; they’re worth collecting for posterity’s sake).
There may no longer be any tolerance for this kind of inventiveness when many people count themselves lucky to retain any job title at all. But without letting things get out of hand, there is some merit in exploring and recognizing the way in which some executive jobs have changed. A few years ago Time magazine suggested that Chief Information Officer would be replaced by Chief Learning Officer. It hasn’t happened, but it demonstrates the way CIOs are expanding their expertise far beyond applications and hardware. Value-added resellers have gone through the same process, and it can be a healthy sign of industry players moving into new markets and offering more to their customers. The test of a job title is whether its creativity fails to explain the job description behind it. How has the role of Bill Gates really changed, for example, since becoming chief software architect at Microsoft? Beats me.
The best, most valuable workers I have known have always done more for an organization than their titles would suggest. For these people, their business cards tell not what they do but are simply records of a milestone they have long since surpassed.