SAN JOSE, Calif. – It is a corporate feel-good movement sweeping the nation: titlemania.
No longer content with being just "senior vice president" or "managing director" or even "embedded software applications engineer," professionals throughout America have been drinking the Silicon Valley startup Kool-Aid and they're getting downright giddy with their job titles.
Blame it on Google, where employees can pretty much give themselves any title they like, whether it's "jolly good fellow" (head of Google's meditation and mindfulness program) or "chief extraterrestrial observer" (a Google Earth Engine founder whose real name is Noel Gorelick).
But now the rest of the nation, and not just Silicon Valley, is going mad with monikers.
"I'm running into more and more people the past year or two with weird titles," said Jonathan Harrop, a marketing manager with mobile-technology company Yvolver in Dallas who handles recruiting and must navigate an increasingly loopy LinkedIn landscape. "Back in 2010 there were a few companies looking for things like 'social media guru' or 'ninja,' but those titles fell out of fashion. Now people are starting to get really esoteric."
"I interviewed a designer at a small company who said he was the 'head of Touchy Feely Graphics' and I said, 'Just say what you do, man.' He was a front-end graphics designer but he was trying to say user experience without saying user experience."
Much of this silliness is being spawned in Silicon Valley, the high-tech petri dish that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose and an environment in which the bacteria of workplace pet policies and on-site yoga sessions are multiplying out of control. It's all about hard work, long hours and creating at least the illusion of fun.
"Silicon Valley companies are known for bursting out of old ways of thinking, so these new titles are a product of that way of doing things, and I love them," said Gail Rubin, a former public relations executive from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who now makes her living as a certified thanatologist, or "death educator." Her gig: write and consult about dealing with death and all its trappings. Her business card reads: "The Doyenne of Death."
"My brother has a way with words and he suggested the name," she said, explaining that a doyenne is a word of French origin to describe a woman who has a lot of experience in or knowledge about a particular subject. "It rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn't it? I even trademarked it, not that anyone would want that title. I quickly realized most people in the U.S. don't even know what a doyenne is, so that was a mistake on my part. But I went through all the time and expense to get it so I'm not dropping it now."
When San Jose hardware engineer Mike Savini went out on his own in 2006, he knew that solving computer glitches, or bugs, was his calling. But what to call his calling? "Bug specialist" is the name he came up with. "It's all about personal marketing," said Savini, who now works for Juniper Networks, a networking products company. "I wasn't trying to be funny, but I thought 'bug specialist' was very specific and kind of bold, because you want a bold person dealing with these bug problems."
Public relations expert Andrea Marilyn Garcia said that while an offbeat title could "be used to highlight how innovative and forward-thinking, or how fun, a company is," an over-the-top title can backfire. "The truly wacky titles," she said, "could garner media interest for the company, but you may lose credibility in other areas."
Still, the trend shows no sign of abating. Employees and employers alike come up with goofy or hyperspecific titles for all sorts of reasons: to stand out from crowd; to attract a certain type of job applicant, to get across exactly what you do; or, like Savini, to just be bold.
"The people in a company are the most important thing in a company, and a title can be very powerful," said Maya Imberman, director of Human Development and head of the Happiness Committee for Troika, a branding and marketing agency in Los Angeles.
As titlemania spreads, its devotees are finding another benefit to zany names: they can be a heck of an icebreaker. As CEO and founder of PrasadaWholebeing@Work, a Philadelphia-based company that works to improve workplace well-being through yoga and mindfulness programs, Alice Dommert sees an offbeat job description like "mood fixer" as a tool to help employees be more engaged with their work.
"Most of these CEO (and executive) titles are either so ambiguous, like the 'assistant VP of whatever whatever,' or they're so obvious that people then make assumptions about what they are," Dommert said.
Eva Scofield loves her title: "snack huntress." Yup, she travels the United States and Canada in search of interesting snacks at food shows which her company, Graze, then turns into new and healthy snacks of their own. She was given the name by their office in England.
"I love it. It's appropriate, it's apt and it's accurate. I don't have to be just a saleswoman; I can be a huntress."