We are more than our job titles

Updated on Jun 07, 2020

Job titles suck. To describe your job in three or less words sounds preposterous, but that’s what we do. Ever since I started my career in the web industry I have struggled to apply a job title to what I do.

Here is what I do on a weekly basis:

Some might say I’m a designer, some a front end developer. Others might go a little more fancy, calling me a UI or UX designer. In reality all of these are both accurate and inaccurate.

Humans want to belong. We crave it. There’s even a wiki page on belongingness (which is a fascinating read). You can see examples every day – sports teams we support, music we like, the way we dress, our beliefs. Job titles are no different. We compare ourselves to others and assign a job title that best suits our skills.

Unfortunately most of us don’t fit into a single category. What we do each day is much more varied and complex. Often job titles undersell our skills by focusing on only one of many.

From simple to complex job titles

When I started in the industry, most people put themselves into two categories. You were either a web designer or web developer. As the industry grew so did the number of job titles.

We saw rolls such as front end developer appear but even that became too general, so more roles were created. The problem is roles such as web designer, front end developer and web developer were created in a bygone era. An era of waterfall processes where designs could be signed off, then HTML & CSS could be written and finally integrated into code. As the web has evolved these lines of separation have becoming increasingly blurry and so have our roles within them.

Dismissing generalists

A generalist is someone who is competent across multiple disciplines. It’s the opposite of a specialist. During the last five years people have started to apply negative connotations to generalists. It’s almost become a running joke at conferences, meetups and on Twitter. An entire collection of people, like me, who have skills that cross over multiple disciplines have been belittled and frowned upon.

It’s often led to a great deal of insecurity on my part. The thought that I’m not respected because I don’t niche in a small area of the industry. The lack of confidence in my skills because I am able to fulfil more than one role. I fear many people are in the same boat as me.

Those who have been in the industry for several years might be able to resonate with these thoughts. After all, most of us started in this industry by doing everything – from the design to writing the back end code. We were webmasters, web designers, generalists. At that time someone who focused on design would have been a specialist.

With the increasing number of more specific job titles we find ourselves spiralling into more niche fields to escape being branded as a generalist. While speaking to Marc Jenkins about this topic he mentioned T-shaped skills. T-shaped skills are when we have a good understanding of many areas, specialising in one. It’s almost in between a specialist and generalist. Yet our very specific job title only promotes a tiny portion of our abilities.

Inaccurate job titles

Out of all the job titles in the web industry, I find front end developer to be one of the most inaccurate. It might be why so many have changed their title to front end designer, JavaScript developer or React ninja to name a few.

The title of Front end developer was created to fill a space between designers and developers. It was a combination creativity and technical aspects. Here lies the problem. The title implies that this role is more of a technical one. Many I speak to in this field come from a creative background, often designers, who wanted to write their own HTML & CSS.

Earlier this year I gave a talk at CodePen Birmingham on this issue. It sparked a lively discussion afterwards. The discussion confirmed just how broad a field front end development is and how different the people are who work in it.

Many on that evening commented how job titles don’t matter once employed, that they’re just a formality. I don’t believe this. Ask yourself these questions:

If you’re like me, the answers to these suggest that people still think front end development is a technical role. Now lets look at what front end developers do.

Based on these, I would argue that everyone who works on the front end of websites are designers – development is design. This fundamental lack of understanding of the role has often lead to those in that field, including me, feeling isolated or resenting their jobs.

Changes in the industry

It’s not all bad. Our industry excels at change. We quickly learn from mistakes, adopt new methodologies and use new technologies. It’s how we’ve come so far in such a short period of time.

The same is now happening with job roles. Companies are starting to realise the importance of those who have skills that cross over multiple disciplines. Those who are able to effectively communicate with designers and developers throughout a project.

Brad Frost put it well in his article on front end design.

I personally think that people who are skilled at front end design are in a great position to help bridge the divide between the design and development worlds. They are mortar that help hold the bricks in place. Existing in purgatory between worlds may sound like a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be! Embrace the fuzziness, encourage front end designers to exist between worlds, and let collaboration and great work ensue.

Optimizely’s have made all their front end developers part of the design team. I cannot praise them enough for this thinking.

A UI Engineer’s ultimate goal is to create great customer experiences, just like our designers. This is why they’re on the design team.

FutureLearn summed up the role of a front end developer well. Further confirming Brads and Optimizely’s comments.

Front End Dev is a melting pot of design & dev skills to implement accessible UIs to accepted standards

This new thinking from business owners on the importance and impact front end developers have on design will hopefully encourage others to rethink how they organise their teams.

What is my job title?

On my homepage I call myself a web designer and front end developer. Technically it’s two roles but I think it describes my skills best. I have considered changing my title to front end designer like Brad Frost but not sure it accurately describes my skills any better.

Many, including myself, would describe themselves as generalists. During my talk at CodePen Birmingham I mention the term versatilist, first coined the American research and advisory firm Gartner.

Versatilists are able to apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, equally at ease with technical issues as with business strategy.

I think this is a great way to describe many of us. Embracing our unique and broad skills can only be a good thing. It makes us more transferable between projects and makes those projects we work on better.

Your opinion

I know this post doesn’t have a solution. I am not sure there is a solution. To compress what you do each day, everyday into three words can only lead to inaccuracies. The aim for this post was to raise awareness of the daily impact of job titles.

The best solution I have seen is a longer form description of your job title. Whether that is an about page or a blog post. Brad Frost has implemented this well.

It has taken months and many drafts to write this post. I don’t know why it took so long, maybe because it touches on so many personal experiences.

I would love to hear what others think. Is there a better way to describe what we do? Have you experienced the same assumptions I have? You can tweet me @daveredfern or if for something longer or more private feel free to email me.

Personal Thought