Job titles and mixtapes

Redesigning the job title in the age of Spotify

Ben Ralph
Ben Ralph
Aug 19, 2018 · 7 min read

Many of you will remember having a physical music collection, your own tangible manifestation of your musical identity.

It wasn’t that long ago, but music streaming services have now relegated our once prized collections to our attics and glove compartments.

Our favourite songs are no longer trapped as Track 13 on a CD that was long ago scratched. We can now play it on constant loop, or place it as track number one in a playlist of our other 100 favourite songs. We can share it freely and enjoy countless remixes and covers all over YouTube and Vimeo.

The way we organise and experience music has fundamentally changed.

But what about job titles?

Through my weird and wonderful career so far I have collected many different job titles. I’ve been a marketer, a recruiter, an analyst, a developer, a graphic designer, a UX designer, an experience designer, a founder, a product manager, an instructor and a consultant.

Firstly this tells you that I fully embrace my inner Gen Y-ness, and secondly, that job titles are a pretty blunt way of encapsulating a modern skill set.

How can I encapsulate, distil and distinguish that set of skills and experience down into a generic job title? My family find it impossible to understand what I do because I find it almost as impossible to articulate!

I’m sure this isn’t a problem I alone experience. It is a limitation of traditional printed CVs and fixed pre-defined job titles.

The modern designer needs a modern way of thinking about job titles, and I have found inspiration from Spotify and their millions of personalised playlists.

In this analogy think of songs as skills and traditional job titles as similar to CDs.

A CD has a title and a fixed number of tracks.

A job has a title and a fixed number of skills.

In the new world we live in, we should aspire for our job titles to be less like CDs, and more like personalised playlists.

Why did we need generic job titles in the past?

Job titles were information architecture

Job titles allow employers to quickly articulate what kind of employees they are looking for. Job titles make it easier for job candidates to filter and consume job ads more efficiently.

Think back to before the internet, when you found job ads in newspapers, before we had advanced search and LinkedIn recommending jobs based on our skills and activity. Imagine having to read the full body text of each ad before ruling it relevant or irrelevant.

Imagine you’re a plumber; without titles, you’d be reading ads for electricians and dressmakers. With titles, you can skip right past those alphabetically until you make it to the Ps (for plumbers).

As a designer, I see this as a classic information architecture problem. One we can change.

You can hopefully see the similarity here with music distribution.

Back when the only way to buy music was on physical media, we were limited by how we could categorise it. It needed a band name, it needed a genre, and it needed a title.

Back before Spotify could monitor our preferences and make personalised recommendations we’d have to travel to a store, flick through 1000s of CDs one by one until we found the one we were looking for.

The cost of browsing was high and very time consuming. We needed to have ‘favourite bands’ and ‘favourite genres’ or else all the possible choices would paralyse us.

The internet has liberated music discovery. No more trips to the store; we can now sample before we buy and we have some of the smartest people in the world building better algorithms to recommend exactly the right music to us at exactly the right time.

The internet will do the same for job discovery. Jobs will be more targeted, more personalised, and they will be recommended to us so we don’t need to go hunting for them.

Why did we need to standardise the way we acquire new skills?

Job titles were needed to package up and sell training courses

Universities don’t sell education, they sell jobs. More specifically, they sell degrees that we use to get jobs.

The cost of setting up a university or TAFE is very high, so they need to appeal to a mass audience. They are incentivised to create general courses with generic titles and sets of skills.

Although there is a limited amount of customisation through electives, majors and minors, in a paper-based world, educational institutions can’t offer hyper-personalised courses, and they can’t stay up to date with the industries they’re attempting to prepare students for.

There is a lag between what skills the industry needs and the time it takes for universities to package them up into courses and make them available to the public.

In the past, the cost of acquiring new skills was high and only accessible to some (and sadly it still is).

What can we learn from the music industry that could help?

Aspiring artists are no longer locked out of the music industry by record labels. They can make and distribute music themselves.

Although there are still mega worldwide pop stars, there has never been a better time for indie music creators. The cost of creating and distributing music has dropped from tens of thousands or even millions of dollars, down to the price of a laptop and a Squarespace subscription.

Musicians don’t have to wait to ‘get discovered’ or strive for mass market appeal anymore; they can make music and post it online. Admittedly, a lot of it is awful, but some of it groundbreaking.

The fact that creating music and distributing it online is now so accessible means that musicians can be more niche. Musicians can find success with smaller audiences outside of the generic main stream and we the audience can enjoy a much larger, richer and diverse collection of music.

Knowledge acquisition has followed the same path. Visit YouTube, Google, Udemy, Lynda or any of a 1000 other options and learn the skill you need.

Universities are like record labels, in a time when it is getting easier to be an ‘indie student’.

Why do we cling onto job titles?

Job titles are a large part of our identity

Job titles are part of our identity and give us a sense of belonging.

Job titles allow us to join industry groups, visit conferences and know who ‘our tribe’ is.

In the old world, my music identity might be ‘rock’, ‘indie’ or even ‘pop’.

As a teenager my worldview was shaped by the music I thought was cool, it impacted who I thought my friends were and who I aspired to be.

In the new world, my music identity can change based on my mood. It can cut across genre, style, aesthetic or moment in time.

My music identity could be ‘low-key weekend with friends’, ‘hits for the gym’, ‘RnB Fridays’ or ‘throwback Thursdays’.

It can also be shaped by who I’m with.

In the old world, my work identity might be ‘plumber’, ‘developer’ or ‘teacher’.

However, in the new world, it could be ‘Ethical Technology Advisor,’ ‘Freelance Relationships Officer’, ‘Nostalgist’ or even ‘Personal Content Curator’.

It can change depending on the company, the project or the team I’m working with.

There are no limits, and you will be rewarded for defining your personalised playlist based on skills that cross industry, role and skill set.

No two user experience designers are the same, no two developers are the same, so why should their job titles be?

It’s your life, your playlist and you should add and remove the tracks as needed.

Your role is for you to discover… weekly.

Hi, I’m Ben. By day, I’m the Founder & Head of Product Innovation at Beaker & Flint, where I help organisations design and deliver amazing customer experiences. By night you can find me running a trail or tinkering with code.

If this post sparked a question or idea you want to run by me, I’d love to chat it over with you. Reach out via the comments below or start a conversation via email here.

Beaker & Flint

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