By what name shall we call them?

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee February 21, 2016
What's in a name? More importantly, what's in a job title - and does it matter? Salesforce's Peter Coffee ponders technology's ability to amplify traditional organizational roles.

[caption id="attachment_6249" align="alignright" width="300"]Peter Coffee Peter Coffee[/caption]

As any sorcerer can tell you, names have power. Names are not merely identifiers. They alter people’s mental states: both the person named, and the person who uses that name, form beliefs and expectations about the role and the abilities of the person thus branded. With more new roles emerging in our organizations every year, at a pace never seen before, the question of what to call the jobs we’re creating is more than one of mere designation.

Before we dispatch this question—'How do people react to names?'—to the anthropologists and the psychologists, we should think about the impact this has on mainstream business people and technologists. We’re creating new functions, to handle unfamiliar responsibilities, more quickly than traditional naming processes can keep pace and bring forth job titles that we all understand. Bad names lead to bad outcomes, or at any rate to distorted and probably unfortunate behaviors.

We’re not talking about esoteric specialties or niche occupations, but rather about a massive and rapid tilt of global employment toward new combinations of skills and duties. The World Economic Forum’s January 2016 report The Future of Jobs observes: 

the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.

Nor is this a futurist scenario of clumsy (if well-intentioned) optimism. Already, statistics compiled by U.S. government agencies show hundreds of thousands of people holding jobs whose names had not yet been coined two decades earlier: jobs like 'logistician', 'photovoltaic installer', or of course 'data scientist'. Those job titles, at least, have some kind of objective meaning once their novelty is overcome. Some roles are less crisply defined.

In fact, what brought this topic to mind was a conversation in London early this month at a conference created and managed by the Salesforce customer community: an event with the inspired name of 'London’s Calling'.

During one of the day’s breakout sessions, someone raised the question of whether the common expression 'Salesforce admin' (denoting a company’s designated manager of their Salesforce-subscription services) was self-limiting. Is it a title that sounds too menial? Does it prevent both people and technology from living up to their full potential? These questions are worth answering, considering that the trajectory of interest in this title is almost a dead ringer for the “data scientist” trend.

Should these people preferably be called 'business analysts', 'business partners' or something else that reflects their readiness to discuss process improvement – and not merely to assure record-keeping accuracy, or run reports and generate forecasts?

Once I started thinking about alternatives, several accurate but provocative options came to mind. When an organization is trying to drive the adoption of a new management system, one often hears expressions like, 'If it’s not in the system, it didn’t happen' or (even more attention-getting) 'If it’s not "closed and won" in the system, don’t expect to get paid'. The job title that this brings to mind, with a nod to the fictional Rumpole, is 'He/She Who Must Be Obeyed'.

The founder of the House of Rothschild is widely (but dubiously) quoted as saying:

Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.

Perhaps there is a parallel here with something like:

If I’m the one who determines if you get paid, does it matter who’s the ‘boss’?


We can get even more aggressive about the transformative power of the people who can summon forth the lightning from 'the cloud'.

This past summer, I was talking with a group of admins about the relatively large fraction of women in that role compared to many other IT positions. Merely having that conversation was part of a trend toward much more high-profile discussion of the under-representation of women in many high-wage, high-growth job categories, with this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8 providing many opportunities to illuminate and address the issue.

Talking with that nearly all-female group in Chicago last summer, I believe my most-Tweeted comment was something like 'They thought they were bringing in a Roomba to clean up the contacts list, but they found out it was a Terminator that was out to eradicate the legacy stacks.' It’s entertaining to imagine the job title 'Legacy Terminator' on an organization chart, but I won’t hold my breath.

From another fictional world comes another possible title, 'Wearer of the One Ring'. Tolkien fans will recognize the doubly-parallel image: the wearer is both invisible - perhaps not even showing up as an “IT spend” in the corporate budget – but at the same time, there is a note of the overarching power that today may be flowing to the most mobile and collaborative nodes of an IT network.

In my comments at 'London’s Calling' though, I ended my digression on job titles with a comment from one of my MBA-program professors, Len Korot (then of Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, now at UCLA), who once said:

Remember that Stalin never held any title more elevated than ‘Party Secretary.

OK, technically, “General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party,” but his point was absolutely valid: it’s up to all of us to make our job title mean something, rather than expecting our title’s meaning to make us into something.

There are things that anyone can do without a title, or for that matter a budget or even a need for permission. We can walk around our workplace looking for spreadsheets that should be turned into governed, audited, trustworthy applications, and we can show how quickly a cloud platform can enable that to happen at how little cost.

We can look for other things that 'someone' ought to be doing, and make ourselves that someone. We can take jobs whose traditional titles might seem to minimize or marginalize the people who hold them, and use the leverage of new technologies to amplify those roles.

If we wait for the nomenclators to tell us what these jobs should be called, we’ll be steering by a lagging indicator. If we defy the limitations of a title, and make it mean something amazing, we’ll wind up in a much more interesting place.

A grey colored placeholder image