Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Role Title Terminology

In my writing about hiring and management, I often talk about role titles – terms like “manager”, “director”, “executive”, and so forth. I’ve found that many readers find the precise definitions of these terms confusing. Often companies give lofty-sounding titles as a sort of non-financial compensation, so you’ll often see things like a “VP” title meaning wildly different things and different companies. I’m generally all for descriptivism in language, but there are some very real differences between different types of roles, and having clear terms helps us communicate about them.

So here’s a glossary of the terms I use when I’m talking about job titles. I think this mostly matches a rough consensus among people who think about organization structure, but if something here’s controversial drop me a line and let me know.

IC

“Individual Contributor” — someone with no people-management responsibilities, i.e. no direct reports. I use this term because it’s common, but I don’t love it. “IC” implies that the role has no leadership responsibilities, but that’s not the case. Non-managers often do substantial leadership work. Tech/design leads and project/project/program managers are all examples of roles that are usually ICs – they don’t have anyone reporting to them – but are largely leadership roles. The term “IC” merely means “has nobody reporting to them.”

Manager

Someone with people reporting to them. Fully defining what “management” really means ends up getting squishy, but roughly, if you’re responsible for someone’s performance, their compensation, and have the power to hire and fire someone, you’re their manager.

(If you’re not sure if you’re someone’s manager, or if you can’t figure out who your manager is, your organization is almost certainly dysfunctional.)

Line Manager

Not a frequently used term, but sometimes used to differentiate managers who only have ICs reporting to them from managers who have other managers reporting to them.

Direct Report

If Annika is Barry’s manager (with no layer of management in between), then Barry is Annik’a direct report. I dislike this term (more even than IC) because it feels dehumanizing to use such a business-speak noun-phrase to refer to a person. But sometimes it’s the clearest term I can find, so I’m including it here even though I try to avoid using it.

Senior

(As in “Senior Engineer”, “Senior Designer”, “Senior Program Manager”, etc.)

Titles like “Junior”, “Associate”, “Entry-Level”, “Mid-Career”, and so forth are terrifically difficult to define clearly; they’re all over the map. They’re often used simply to denote compensation bands, and rarely have much connection to skills development.

“Senior” is similar, and can denote wildly different levels of experience and skills progression. However, there is one distinct aspect of the “Senior” title that usually holds true: it’s the “career level” for most software engineers. What does that mean? Will Larsen, author of Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track defines it in his introduction to Staff Engineering:

At the career level, your company’s career ladder won’t require that you work towards the next promotion; being promoted further is an exception rather than expected. This is also when many engineers are first given an opportunity to move into engineering management.

Senior Manager

In the same way that “Senior Engineer” denotes a more experienced, career-level engineer, some organizations have a “Senior Manager” title for managers with more experience but who isn’t a Director. This can be used as a promotion path for managers who aren’t ready (or don’t want) to move into managing managers.

“Staff-plus”: Staff, Principal, Distinguished

These are all titles that denote leadership in an IC capacity – leadership roles that are beyond the management track. I follow the terms that Will Larsen lays out in Staff Engineer:

What if you want to advance your career without becoming an engineering manager? Many companies will answer that question by excitedly telling you that they have a two-track software engineering career path. Engineering management is the first track, and the second is technical leadership. The technical leadership track is populated by titles like Staff engineer and Principal engineer. […]

[His] book standardizes on the most common sequence of titles: going from Senior to Staff, followed by Principal, and then Distinguished. It uses the term Staff-plus as an overarching label for Staff, Principal, and Distinguished titles. Many companies only have a subset of these titles, slowly adding more as their team grows, but companies that only have one technical leadership title almost always use Staff.

Director

A manager of managers (as opposed to a Line Manager, who manages ICs). Directors sometimes directly manage their budget, sometimes not.

The “Director” title is often used to denote “more senior (or more highly paid) manager” rather than precisely to mean “manager of managers”. I’m an example: my title at Heroku was “Director of Security” despite not managing managers most of that time.

When I use the title, though, I’m using it precisely to mean “manager of managers” because that’s a very different role from managing ICs. Explaining this difference is out of the scope for this glossary; suffice to say that the transition from Manager to Director is almost as much of a change in role as the transition from IC to Manager. See Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path for a brilliant discussion of these career transitions.

Executive (usually VP, SVP)

Executives control entire business units (e.g. a distinct product line at a multi-product company, or entire organizations like Engineering or Product). Executives are frequently managers of directors – any ICs are several levels away on the org chart. Executives should nearly always have control of their budget, and frequently will have “their own P&L (profit and loss statement)” — meaning, the business unit they operate accounts for its own revenue and expenses and can succeed or fail somewhat independently of the rest of the company.

Like Director, VP and SVP (Vice President / Senior Vice President) are often used in inflated ways (I’ve seen VPs with no direct reports, for example…). When I use them, it’s to denote manager-of-directors and operator-of-entire-business-lines-or-functions. That’s because, again, these specific responsibilities are wildly different from what Managers and Directors learn, so once again Director to Executive is almost a career change.

C-level (CEO, CTO, CISO, etc.)

These are the weirdest titles. They have very little in common with each other. Often C-levels are Executives, but not always: a common case is for the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) to be the most senior IC in engineering – a very high up tech lead, but not a manager.

The only thing that C-level roles share in common is: they report to the CEO or to the board. That’s it. They don’t indicate much about what rolls up to them on the org chart, or what their responsibilities are. But this reporting characteristic is important: reporting to the CEO – and especially reporting to a board – is pretty weird, and makes these roles uniquely challenging.


Are there terms used in role titles that you don’t understand? Let me know – jacob at this domain – and I’ll add them to the glossary.


Changelog

  • 2022-10-13: Added “Senior Manager”.