Karthik Vijayakumar

Removing titles from the workplace

01 May 2018   |   Culture

Karthik Vijayakumar

Removing titles from the workplace

01 May 2018   |   Culture

What are we talking about?

Working without titles.

Why is working without titles important to the future of work?

Because we’re all in this together.

Learn more about Karthik

Design Your Thinking

Welcome to the WorkMinus Podcast, where we talk with influencers about what they’re trying to remove from how we work today and where they see work moving in future. Today’s guest is Karthik Vijayakumar, and this episode is WorkMinus Titles. Hi Karthik, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Neil. Thanks for having me.


So you’re the host of the Design Your Thinking podcast, which is a great resource for product makers and product managers, but this time we’re talking about Work Minus Titles. But before we get in there, tell us a little bit about Design Your Thinking and what it’s all about.

Oh yeah, Design Your Thinking is a podcast and a blog where I talk about products and generally making stuff, which is products and services, whatever it be, and I’ve focused so long on product managers and designers and a little bit into entrepreneurship. And yeah, that’s the blog and I have a history working with big companies and small ones. Started my career working with Verizon, worked with them for a couple of years, and then moved to IBM where I worked for quite a bit of time and then moved on to work at this another small company. And now I’m running this as a solopreneur. At least that’s one word I like to identify myself with. And yeah, that’s what I do.


Yeah, so we’re talking about Work Minus Titles. So tell us, you started off with Verizon, what was your title when you first started–your very first job.

Yeah, interesting. Even before I was at Verizon, I actually had a startup, which I don’t talk about much. It failed. It just bombed after a year and a half, I closed it and then I didn’t have any title. So I began my career with no title and I am right now without a title too. But when I went into the corporate world with Verizon, I was a programmer, and that was my first core corporate job. And from then on, I moved on to IBM where I was a solutions architect, and it was crazy because what I do now is completely disconnected from the two of them. And then I moved into product management with my third company at CollabNet. And now I’m back to square one.


Yeah, so let’s get into this a little bit more. Product management is your thing. That’s what you’re known for. It is a title that people get when they join a company. You’re going to manage this product, but zoom out a little bit. Why do you think titles are something that we should remove from how work is done today?

Interesting. In fact, I would even go back to the other two titles that I had, programmer, solutions architect, product manager. I couldn’t identify myself with any of them, frankly. I thought it was more creative and product management, as we all know, comprises of a whole bunch of different things. And I didn’t like doing some of them, while I actually ended up liking some other aspects of it. But coming back to the title… I don’t have any problems with title, but then the challenge with title are two things. One is, I started to sense this very strongly when I started to hire product managers and marketers, and when I was doing this, I saw this across cultures. I live in India, and I traveled to the Bay Area very often, and I had the same problem that I saw in both places. That the title for which I’m hiring for and the title with witch people came, the candidates came in, they were completely, sometimes different, sometimes same.

But the problem is, people had some expectation from the title, which is the first step of the problem and subsequently what happens is, once you get into the role rather than a job, you end up calling yourself a senior product manager or a group product manager or principal product manager. And that in turn changes the way you think. And it happened to me, and I’ve seen this happening to others as well, where you start to think about your job very differently as opposed to how your job used to be just a couple of days back when you were just a product manager. The minute you have the senior attached to it, you think differently. And you start to, not think of certain things that you use to think when you were just a product manager. Now that’s just the beginning of it. But what happens is, over a period in time, just to clarify, title here is not just the senior or the chief, but also the title product manager. And what I’ve seen from both my podcast talking to my guests, and also from my own personal experiences, people are far more successful when you are given a certain goal or you’re very clearly given a mandate to run with, rather than just a title and a bunch of stuff to manage, right. So that was the biggest issue, because the minute you start to think about goals, I started to see people behaving a lot different. You start to think different, whereas when you don’t have… I’ve seen a lot of companies have goals, but then these goals are very, very… they’re just a one-time activity. They do it in the beginning of the year, and then they revisit it when they come to the end of the year just for negotiating the salaries. Yeah, that’s the whole background where I kind of started to think that titles, more than trying to help an organization and an individual, it actually starts acting negatively.


Yeah, so let me jump in here. When I hear you talk about titles, I’m seeing a couple trends here. One is that sometimes the title is for the function that you do at a job, right? The product manager, you’re supposed to be managing the product. That’s kind of a descriptive type function, but titles can also be a hierarchy. It’s a senior or a partner or a group leader.

So that element comes into titles, but then also a title should have some sense of responsibility to say; If I tell you, you are the product manager, that’s what I want you to be doing at this company. I want you to manage the product. I don’t care how you do it, or what exactly is involved in that, but how it comes in there. Those three aspects I’m seeing, there’s the idea function, the idea of ranking or hierarchy and responsibility. Which of those do you think are suitable, which one should we get rid of, and is there an alternative way we should look at it?

I think you bring up a very important point, which is the distinction between title and role. Roles are important and roles have responsibilities, whereas titles don’t have responsibilities attached to it. Like for instance, if I have to look for somebody, if I’m going to hire somebody, I’m going to look for what I need to get done and where I need help. So that’s how I look for, and I don’t see a need to hire three senior developers. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but then if I said, look, I need to get three of these modules completely ripped and redone. Now what does it take? We need three engineers on it and they need to be well aware of the technology, they need to be well aware of what it means to rip and replace something. They should have done that. So that’s it. Now, I’m not talking about titles anymore. Now, if I have to talk about this from a product management or design perspective, the same thing applies, because if I’m going to redo my website or launch a mobile app, then I am going to look for people who have done that and who can help me complete my activity in the time that I have budgeted for. So title just falls off the plate here. You’re talking about roles and responsibilities and you’re talking about goals.


Yeah. So, how has your experience as a solopreneur really impacted this? When people ask you, what do you do? How do you respond to that? And also if you’re looking to work with someone, I’m assuming you’ve chosen not to build a big team around you, but you’re going to work with freelancers, you’re going to work with other people that are close to you. So, how has all this shaped your personal work?

Great question and I have taken OKRs as my way of managing my work. So I use the OKR technique, so I have an objective and I task them down, and when I need help, I just go around looking for people. Say for instance, the last time I reached out somebody was in trying to edit my podcast and I was just looking for somebody who could do it. Now no matter what your title is and no matter what your experience is, as long as you can get this job done, and this is the time frame I have, I’m good with that, right? This is the thing I fought, rather I had to struggle with a little bit in the beginning, what do I call myself?

There are people who have their names with consultants, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, it works for the sake of getting found on Linked in or some social media, but other than that, I don’t use any of these titles for the way I engage with clients. For instance I go for speaking engagements. I go for consulting engagements with the companies. And when I do that, I just try to focus myself as somebody who can get the job done for you. So for instance, if there was a company which I worked with recently, which was trying to launch something new from what they have already done, and when I try to work with them, they came to me because they saw Design Thinking and Design Your Thinking is my website, but then they saw ‘design’ and ‘thinking’, and they came to me. Now, the way I took the conversation was purely as “What you need to get done and what can I do for you?” That completely changes the way I have a conversation with somebody rather than saying that, look, I’m a product consultant or product management, product design consultant who can do design thinking workshop and then work with their teams to do this. No. I think you shift the entire conversation into one that focuses on the goals. What do you need to get done?


Yeah, and I know you’re a fan of the jobs to be done mentality. So can you apply that thinking to also hiring… we’re using the same term, it’s a job that you’re hiring somebody for, but how does that impact the titles? 

I don’t know, titles have just been irrelevant to me even when I was working with companies. So talking about jobs to be done, that’s exactly what I’ve always focused on. And it’s always worked even with people who I have hired into the organization have had this conversation later at a later point. And I realized that the fact that I was very clear with what I needed to get done, helped them decide whether they want to take the job or not. One of the biggest challenges I’ve had, and I’ve asked people who have done surveys on my blog, and then I’ve gotten this feedback as well, which is, what helps you decide whether you should take up a job or not? For instance, a classic example is product management. Product management covers everything from project management to marketing to design. Now, how do I know whether I should be picking up this job from this company or not. Say, I’ve been made an offer. How do I know or how do I decide if that’s the right thing for me? I love design. I love to use Design Thinking. Now, if that product management job is going to take me very close to being a ScrumMaster, probably I should not do it. I should not take up the job. And only where you can do it is by defining what jobs you want this person to get done for you as a company.


Yeah. Do you see that kind of as the best path forward in terms of looking at the future of work, looking at hiring, trying to describe what you want someone to do, much more important than saying, hey, I need a senior architect for this.

Right. And before I answer that, it’s important for us to take a look at some of the trends that are taking place at this moment. One is this whole thing of the millennial generation is gone and we are going into Gen Y and the future. So, we’re talking about the world 10 years from now. We’re going to have millennial managing and Gen Y and Gen Z who are coming into the workforce. And these guys or girls, are going to be less patient, more inpatient. They are going to look for faster results. They are going to look for more flexibility. So that’s one trend.

The other trend is education. Education is changing so rapidly with every single university going online, including Harvards and the MITs. And the number of dropouts are on the rise, including in countries like India, where traditionally education was considered the holy grail. And there is also a variety of education that’s come out in countries like India. India was a country, 10 years back you couldn’t find anybody doing anything else other than engineering, medicine or commerce, or economics. Now even engineering, it used to be just three streams, now it’s all around, and people are doing visual communication, visual arts. Art has taken off. Now that’s another trend.

The third one is, is the whole shift across geographies. For instance, India, this whole developing versus developed countries is completely disrupted at this point and it’s getting faster disrupted than what it was in the past. So India is no longer a developing country in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to talent. India is no longer a developing country, rather it is a developed country.

And then, the last trend that I am seeing is this whole digital and social play, because everything is digital. And I’m talking about things that are happening across all countries and geographies. Hiring has changed. People are hiring through social networks. People are retaining very differently. There are so many startups in these two areas alone, which are trying to bring in a lot of difference in the way you look at work. And if you actually look at all of this put together, you want to focus on removing all the stuff that was put in together. Because I think because of the industrial age, which largely treated work and education as workshops or factories.

So the minute you come and I tag you with a label, which is your title, and then you move on, and you get another tag after some point. Now that’s going… that should go out. It’s happening in education. Work is an extended part of education. You’re still learning. Title is one of them that just needs to go off. Just like a lot of other things need to, which you guys are focusing on.


Sure, you’ve been able to talk with a lot of people through your podcast, through the work that you’ve had in different areas. When we talk about titles, tell us some very interesting titles you’ve seen people have that you actually saw that sound like a good job or a good something that would be interesting to do. So what are some interesting titles you think that are out there that we can latch on to?

Yeah, there was this startup that I work with a couple of months back and the CEO doesn’t call himself the CEO, he calls himself the chief sprinter. So, they are into sports, and the entire company doesn’t have anybody who has a title like you see in any other companies. So, they believe that, when I asked him this question, as to why you have such weird names, weird but interesting name I would say, his answer was the minute you think about yourself at work, you start getting yourself soaked into the workplaces and what we’re doing. So the minute I think about work, I think about sprinting, and he had some interesting titles–I don’t remember. In fact, they had work areas where I saw some stickies on the wall, which were called batons, because like in a relay I pass it on. That workplace was something which is very unique to me because these guys are not talking about titles, rather they’re talking about themselves as part of the cause of companies they are working for. In this case, it’s sports. So they come on as sportsman.


I think it’s a good example of saying a CEO is a very hierarchical title. You know where that person sits in the company, how they look at different things, but when you call them the chief sprinter you know what they’re doing, you know that they’re going fast. They’re pushing people, they are trying to meet different targets that are there. And I think that reflects better what it is that people are doing, like we talked about before, in terms of functionality and just doing things. But is there a role for titles when it comes to helping other people outside? I think the big thing is gonna be somebody calls himself a chief sprinter, but they’re in a Forbes article or something like that. The general industry doesn’t understand what that means so, when it comes to across companies, is there still a place for these standard titles?

Yeah, that’s an interesting thing, and I’m curious to see what other guests of yours have to say about it, as I’m generally fishing out for more opinions. But my opinion is, it does matter in the way we see the world currently. I was recently talking to somebody who I worked with back in IBM, and she was describing the workplace to be very different. This is not in India, but then she was talking about the workplace to be very different from what it used to be. For instance, she was talking about–we used to, back when I was working with IBM, we used to work with contractors and they used to get their IBM email address, so it’ll be like your [email protected] or whatever it is. And these guys used to have a certain small notation. Sometimes they wouldn’t even have their name.

Now, this whole thing has changed. People are coming in with their own company email addresses and if they are coming from a company or if they’re freelancers, which apparently IBM has started to look for and use for a lot of projects. They get to use their own email addresses. Now, I don’t know how much it’s their email address versus some Gmail versus other mails, but the funda is that thinking has changed. The thinking has changed from the corporate standpoint as to how I look for people and how I hire them. I don’t hire somebody with their title.

For example, a freelancer, you’ll never find a freelance of calling himself senior business developer. I just do business development. And if you wanna hire me, you can hire me, and all I sell to you is my accomplishment. I have done these, so if you want to hire me, I’m up for it. Now, when you move the conversation to stuff, to what you wanna get done, jobs to be as you may wanna call it. Yeah, just say what you want to get done, and yep, “I have done it. These are my things.”

Now how do you identify me? There are a lot of newer avenues of doing it, I’m seeing even LinkedIn now slowly talking about freelancers and others. They never used to support them some time back. They’re bringing in freelancers. Now, why am I talking about freelancers? It’s not because I am one, but it’s because the world is moving. There are a bunch of people who have quit their jobs and become freelancers because they find greater happiness in doing things their own way, at the same time helping people and companies.

To answer your question here, five years or ten years from now, I believe again it’s my opinion, but I believe that things are going to change in such a way that people are going to be pretty open to hiring people, including people who are solopreneurs or freelancers, or whatever you want to call them. And at that point, all that matters is what you have, and will it help me achieve what I want to achieve. It doesn’t matter what your title is.


Awesome, I love it. It’s been a great conversation to think about what the world can look like, the world of work without titles. Especially these hierarchy things you bring up. It’s a good thing to think about getting rid of, not necessarily that hierarchy itself is bad, but in terms of how people view themselves. You reach a status and you say, “I’ve become the senior partner in this company.” You can relax a little bit, whereas if your title reflects what you do, the job to be done or the area responsibility, you can’t let up. You gotta keep going, you gotta keep pushing forward. And that’s great.

Yeah, and I don’t want to be a sound cynical towards titles. Titles are perfectly okay, and I know a lot of people who have managed it really, really, well when they just don’t even mention it. A lot of people who don’t even mention their title in the email, and there are a bunch of people who do. I am just worried about the people who do because that kind of shakes and unsettles people sometimes.


Karthik, thanks so much for coming on the show, tell us how to get in touch with you. Tell about your podcast.

Oh, great. You can reach out to me, [email protected] if you want write to me. Feel free to do that. And yeah, I’m on Twitter @Kartvee and my website is designyourthinking.com

Yeah, we’re re-launching the website and a whole bunch of things this year. I’m really looking forward to it. One of the good things of being a solopreneur is you get to do what you want to do. And last year I took a three month of vacation and I was off the grid, so I’m happy to be back. And the first thing to do this year was talking to you.


Excellent. Thanks a lot for being on the show.

Karthik Vijayakumar is the Founder and Host of The Design Your Thinking Podcast where he interviews creatives, entrepreneurs and nonconformists. He spent over 15 years designing businesses with some of the world’s biggest technology companies including a startup he founded out of college.

He launched the podcast during a career break in 2016, that ended up making ~ quarter million downloads in less than a year.

Today, Karthik combines his experience in online business and podcasting along with his experience with business design, to help entrepreneurs, solopreneurs and business owners with building and growing their businesses and personal brands.

He published The Design Your Thinking manifesto in 2018.

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