Head of? Director? VP? How to live with title inflation.

The war for talent is still raging, and so is title inflation. Here’s how to deal with it.

People standing at different heights

Some companies are willing to get creative with job title to entice talent.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

It’s not just the price of gas and groceries: In the tech industry, title inflation is out of control.

In a talent market where every bargaining chip matters, companies are losing candidates — and employees — to competitors willing to get creative with job titles.

“Promoting people and giving them almost double-promotions, without the experience, is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Corey Thomas, the chairman and CEO of the cybersecurity company Rapid7.

Thomas said he’d recently lost a first-time sales manager when they were hired as a vice president at another company. The manager was a high performer, but still gaining experience. “They were, like, 26 years old,” Thomas said.

According to Thomas, the VP role didn’t work out for his ex-employee, which came as no surprise. The rare wunderkind aside, executive roles typically require skills that are built in decades, not years.

Tech employers are using every tool at their disposal to recruit, and that includes inflated titles. As hiring slows across the industry, title inflation-wary CEOs might soon be able to catch a break — but until then, they may need to adapt to retain employees who are eager to jump ahead in the ranks.

Why companies inflate titles

Employers — and recruiters — have a clear incentive to make titles sound more attractive. When they’re tapped out on compensation, a loftier title can go a long way.

“People are emotional and ego-driven, so if it’s a title that seals that deal, oftentimes we’re happy to accommodate that,” said Shawn Cole, the president of the executive search firm Cowen Partners.

Cole said he discourages clients from going too far with a title that’s over-inflated to the point of being “stupid,” which only serves to solicit unqualified candidates. Excessive title inflation can hurt the reputations of companies and their recruiters, and could even call into question how qualified existing teams are, he said.

“I mean, think about a finance team with a bunch of stupid, inflated titles,” Cole said. “That has repercussions.”

But some title inflation is just good marketing, Cole said. In one recent example, a venture firm that hired Cole was struggling to fill a director role. Although the successful hire would earn a $1 million salary and $5 million in total compensation, Cole said the “director” title was off-putting to candidates.

“I just said, ‘Hey, I know internally, this title makes a lot of sense to you guys in your field, but when we go externally, this title does not make sense,’” Cole said. “We went to a ‘head’ title, ‘head of,’ and I’ve literally got people falling over themselves for the opportunity.”

Head of what?

“Head of” roles are one popular solution to the title conundrum. Hunter Walk, a partner at the seed-stage VC fund Homebrew, said the popularity of “head of” titles was “the biggest seismic shift” in job titles that he’d seen in his career.

“Everyone seems to have been ‘Head of Something,’” Walk told me in an email. “If you’re hiring folks, you really need to dig into what this means on their resume, rather than just assuming it’s a meaningful role.”

In startups, “head of” titles are now frequently used as a rank between director- and VP-level roles, according to Matt Birnbaum, talent partner at Pear VC.

“It’s a generic way of not giving somebody a VP-level title, especially at these earlier-stage startups,” Birnbaum said.

But “head of” can also be used to reduce focus on status. The $3 billion ed-tech startup Outschool, along with companies like Stripe, Gusto and Polygon, has embraced a simplified title hierarchy. Last year, Outschool’s CEO got rid of C-suite titles, changing his own title to “head of Outschool.”

Titles are valuable at the early stages of a company, and founders should avoid handing them out carelessly. Walk warns founders that a “bland” title structure — with simple titles like designer and engineer — is the best place to start. Inflating titles can hurt company culture and create strife when it’s time to hire above someone, Walk said.

“Let the first X people on the team think of themselves as ‘first engineer’ or ‘founding team’ or whatever,” Walk said. “But don’t create a bunch of titles which imply a management structure.”

Title inflation for engineers

Even in large companies, when it comes to technical teams, some degree of title inflation is par for the course now. A senior software engineer at Uber, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she’s not authorized to talk to the press, said she was promoted to senior engineer within three years of starting her first engineering job.

Getting promoted to senior engineer at her last company allowed her to double her salary when Uber hired her. And many of her peers are advancing at the same rate, she said.

“It’s this weird thing where you’re basically getting a promotion externally,” she said. “Companies might lose out if they’re not giving this promotion.”

Looking ahead, the Uber engineer said she expects her career to “plateau” a bit after climbing early. Executives concerned about retaining early- and mid-career employees should consider adding more levels or offering other goals for employees to work toward, like bonuses.

Outside of the management track, late-career engineers already work toward roles like “senior staff engineer” and “distinguished engineer,” but additional rungs on the ladder would give younger engineers more reason to stick around rather than chase outside opportunities, she said.

“It would be a lot more satisfying for people involved if they could get designated promotions after every, like, two or three years,” she said. “Or at least raises.”

Cole sees this as a sign of the times.

“That’s the generation of the candidate,” Cole said. “They need constant pats on the back. That’s just an evolution. The baby boomers waited, like, 10 years for a title change, and the millennials want one now.”

Birnbaum agreed that managers need to get a sense of what employees want two and three years out, and have a plan for how to get them there. Creating a new title to appease a single employee can have negative “ripple effects” on the rest of the team, so managers should look at all the levers that might motivate an employee to stay on.

“Sometimes that’s title-driven, sometimes it’s money-driven,” Birnbaum said. “But a lot of times it’s around scope of impact, whom they get to work with, skills they develop and the journey along the way.”

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee mobile application. When we arrive at the coffee shop, we expect that our chosen brew will be on the counter a few minutes later. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as streaming data “in motion” instantaneously, you, and millions of customers, won’t have the in-the-moment experiences we all expect.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.

How the internet got privatized and how the government could fix it

Author Ben Tarnoff discusses municipal broadband, Web3 and why closing the “digital divide” isn’t enough.

The Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative, which kicked off in May, will roll out grant programs to expand and improve broadband infrastructure, teach digital skills and improve internet access for “everyone in America by the end of the decade.”

Decisions about who is eligible for these grants will be made based on the Federal Communications Commission’s broken, outdated and incorrect broadband maps — maps the FCC plans to update only after funding has been allocated. Inaccurate broadband maps are just one of many barriers to getting everyone in the country successfully online. Internet service providers that use government funds to connect rural and low-income areas have historically provided those regions with slow speeds and poor service, forcing community residents to find reliable internet outside of their homes.

Keep Reading Show less
Aditi Mukund
Aditi Mukund is Protocol’s Data Analyst. Prior to joining Protocol, she was an analyst at The Daily Beast and NPR where she wrangled data into actionable insights for editorial, audience, commerce, subscription, and product teams. She holds a B.S in Cognitive Science, Human Computer Interaction from The University of California, San Diego.

How I decided to exit my startup’s original business

Bluevine got its start in factoring invoices for small businesses. CEO Eyal Lifshitz explains why it dropped that business in favor of “end-to-end banking.”

"[I]t was a realization that we can't be successful at both at the same time: You've got to choose."

Photo: Bluevine

Click banner image for more How I decided series

Bluevine got its start in fintech by offering a modern version of invoice factoring, the centuries-old practice where businesses sell off their accounts receivable for up-front cash. It’s raised $240 million in venture capital and about $700 million in total financing since its founding in 2013 by serving small businesses. But along the way, it realized it was better to focus on the checking accounts and lines of credit it provided customers than its original product. It now manages some $500 million in checking-account deposits.

Keep Reading Show less
Ryan Deffenbaugh
Ryan Deffenbaugh is a reporter at Protocol focused on fintech. Before joining Protocol, he reported on New York's technology industry for Crain's New York Business. He is based in New York and can be reached at

The Roe decision could change how advertisers use location data

Over the years, the digital ad industry has been resistant to restricting use of location data. But that may be changing.

Over the years, the digital ad industry has been resistant to restrictions on the use of location data. But that may be changing.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, the likelihood for location data to be used against people suddenly shifted from a mostly hypothetical scenario to a realistic threat. Although location data has a variety of purposes — from helping municipalities assess how people move around cities to giving reliable driving directions — it’s the voracious appetite of digital advertisers for location information that has fueled the creation and growth of a sector selling data showing who visited specific points on the map, when, what places they came from and where they went afterwards.

Over the years, the digital ad industry has been resistant to restrictions on the use of location data. But that may be changing. The overturning of Roe not only puts the wide availability of location data for advertising in the spotlight, it could serve as a turning point compelling the digital ad industry to take action to limit data associated with sensitive places before the government does.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories