Tales of a Non-Unicorn: A Story About The Trouble with Job Titles and Descriptions

The following is a guest post by Lara Schenck. I heard her tell this story at a CodePen Meetup in New York. I saw an awful lot of nodding heads. It's a fact that there is some trouble in this industry with job titles, descriptions, interviewing, and that whole rigmarole. Check out this story from Lara, then follow her, as I'm sure this isn't the end of this discussion.

I've been self-employed for the past three years. Though I did spend my first year out of college working for a three person, now-defunct startup, I've never had a typical 9-5 (or more like 10-8 nowadays) and to be honest, never really wanted one. Lara Schenck, LLC is a profitable business, and every day I do work that is enjoyable and challenging. I make my own hours, take vacations when I want to, and run everything on my terms.

While that's all awesome, what you don't get from working independently is the team experience. I base my work on teaching technical literacy to non-technical designers and content producers so that they can better communicate with developers. The theory is that if a designer understands why it's a bad idea to request 18 fonts, and if content producers know why it's not trivial to edit the titles of a set of related posts, life will be easier for everyone. At least that's my theory, and the assumption on which I've developed my business.

Lately though, in a bout of the good 'ol impostor syndrome, I've been feeling like, wait, how can I be telling people how to work on teams if I've never really worked on one? I've always been the 'Lead UI/UX/Visual/Web/Front-end Designer-person-thing', and have never worked for a larger company with separate teams for product, UX, marketing, content, frontend, backend, etc.

So I felt the urge to look for a job, and a seemingly perfect one fell into my lap. It was for an awesome company, and it sounded right up my alley skill-wise. The title was 'UX Engineer/Interaction Designer'. I usually balk at the the term "engineer" (perhaps for good reason) but considering the presence of "designer" and the nature of the job post, I wasn't too bothered.

FizzBuzzed.

When it came time for a technical interview with the lead developer, I felt pretty confident. Except for JavaScript "engineering" and anything related to algorithms, my technical skills are sharp. We begin with a great talk about style guides, Sass, the designer/developer phenomenon, atomic design, content, all those awesome things that get me super stoked. Then came the coding portion. I was anticipating questions about nitty-gritty positioning, semantics, maybe some UI based JS stuff, and development workflow. The first question was:

Interviewer: Are you familiar with FizzBuzz?

Me: Um, to be honest, no.

Interviewer: Ok, well, you have to write a program where multiples of three print 'Fizz' instead of the number and for the multiples of five print 'Buzz'. For numbers which are multiples of both three and five print 'FizzBuzz'. So it would look like '1, 2, Fizz, 4, Buzz, Fizz, 7, 8, Fizz, Buzz, 11, Fizz, 13, 14, Fizz Buzz'

Me: (OMG MATH. I tried to talk through it a bit, but then said:)

Me: Ok, again to be honest, my JS knowledge is more regarding UI/UX based tasks. And I don't really understand the point of the question. Like, what's the use case? When would this come up in the role?

(Only after recounting this interaction to a friend did I realize you should not ask "why are you asking me this?" in a job interview.)

Interviewer: Well, it's an exercise in programmatic thinking. No worries, let's move on to the next question. Write a function that takes a timecode string and turns it into seconds.

Again I started talking through it, but it was impossible for me to figure it out with someone watching. I needed to do some serious Googling. He said I could email back my solutions. I toyed with the idea of calling up and saying, "forget it, this isn't for me" but I decided to stick it out. After spending a few hours coming up with something that semi-worked, I found the solution on StackOverflow and, in my honesty, linked to it in the code.

Unsurprisingly, a few days after I sent my solutions I got a "you don't have enough experience for the position, but we'd like to keep your resume on file". In my impostor-prone state, I felt called out as a just-good-at-Googling-and-maybe-jQuery developer. I was embarrassed.

But yeah:

FizzBuzz dying in a fire.

<rant>

After letting this self-doubt dissipate, a new emotion settled in: anger. FizzBuzz is a way to filter out fake programmers. I am fully aware that I am not a programmer, at least "programmer" in the sense of algorithms, data modeling, etc.

Let's go through the job description I saw (only slightly altered for anonymity). To me, this job description was definitely not for a programmer according to that definition.

UX Engineer/Interaction Designer

(...blah blah blah, we're a great company and looking for a great person...)

Responsibilities

  • Create low and high-fidelity mockups to effectively convey interaction and design ideas (e.g. wireframes, sketches, 'pixel-perfect' mockups, etc).

Awesome. Except for the 'pixel-perfect' part. But maybe this could be an opportunity to help them update their processes.

  • Deliver engaging, innovative prototypes, and contribute to front-end development of our products.

Sure thing!

  • Collaborate with and synthesize feedback from other members of the team.

You got it.

  • Evaluate the usability of new and existing products, apply user research findings, and make constructive suggestions for improvements.

I'm in.

Minimum qualifications

  • B.S. degree in Design, Computer Science or related technical field or comparable practical experience.

Little problem. Feel free to contradict me, but can we agree that there isn't such a thing as a B.S. in Design? And that Design and Computer Science degrees are wildly different? But I decided to let this slide.

  • 2 or more years of designing clean, valid, and compatible websites and applications.

Yes!

  • Knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

For sure!

  • Clean and elegant visual design aesthetic.

Yeah!

  • HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript.

I'm a master at the first two, but since there was no mention of programming stuff and the responsibilities section was so design-centric, I figured my jQuery proficiency and capacity to self-teach would suffice.

  • Passionate about creating responsive and delightful interfaces and experiences.

My favorite!

Preferred qualifications

  • Experienced with Object Oriented JavaScript and modern JavaScript libraries such as Ember, Backbone, or Angular.

I've played around with these and understand the concepts. I wouldn't say I'm proficient, but I definitely have 'experience with'. Sure, this could be a lack in my qualifications for the position but again, the verbiage in the sections above is way more oriented around design and prototyping skills.

  • (blah blah stuff about self-motivation and communication skills)

So, where does FizzBuzz play into this? Sure, "engineer" is in the job title, but so is "designer", "UX", and "Interaction". To me, that definitely doesn't indicate a programming job. I wouldn't have applied if I knew that.

It's a problem.

I imagine I'm not the only one who's had an experience like this. The job title conundrum is a known issue. But job descriptions are just as bad or worse.

Let's take a look at a few more examples I've seen.

UI/UX Designer

UI/UX is far more non-descript than I'd like.

In addition to your experiences and capability with UI and UX design, if you accidentally mastered HTML, CSS, JavaScript, front-end development, then that would be seriously awesome.

Remember when you woke up the other day and were like, woah! I mastered JavaScript and didn't even realize it! No.

Frontend Developer

  • Write front-end code in HTML/CSS/SCSS and JavaScript
  • Occasionally write front-end code in PHP (WordPress) or Ruby (on Rails)

Umm, PHP and Ruby are not front-end languages. Maybe they are talking about templating, but... no. Also, listing SCSS and CSS as required skills is suspicious. I smell someone listing buzzwords.

Frontend Developer: HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript

What You Will Be Doing

In this role, you will collaborate in designing, building, and testing world-class web applications. You will work across product, marketing, legal, business development, and operations teams to build and improve our core products. Test and deliver solid, reliable code that meets all requirements. Discover and experiment with new technologies and share with the team.

You will be the entire company. Not helpful.

What You Need for this Position

  • HTML/CSS
  • JavaScript Frameworks
  • CMS (WordPress a plus)
  • Adobe Create Suite
  • UI/UX
  • Eye for Design

Very non-specific.

Now for my favorite...

Competencies

  • Creativity
  • Problem Solving
  • Dealing with Ambiguity
  • Customer Focus
  • Functional/Technical Skills

Lolz.

Sheesh.

Hopefully you get my point.

Who is writing these descriptions? I'm sure these companies find a perfect match now and again. But I have a feeling that's not the norm. It's more likely that many of these companies just don't know what they need so they look for everything. A recruiter or HR person whips something up and puts it out there to see who bites. Maybe they'll catch a unicorn!

What's more, based on my (albeit minimal) job application experience, who knows what will happen in the interview? I imagine you'd talk to a real designer or developer with a much better idea of the situation, and who knows how well that matches the job description, let alone the interviewee's skillset?

</rant>

I feel like it's pointless to rant without proposing a solution, so here are some suggestions for whomever is in charge of this hiring stuff:

  • Audit your process and identify the gaps. Either hire a consultant or do it internally, but please look at the big picture, talk to a range of employees (junior and senior), and figure out where the pain points are. Don't just interpret the opinions of dev/design leads and managers and lump their needs together.
  • List tangible, example tasks that are relevant to the position. Particularly if JavaScript is listed in the role (can you tell I'm a little sore about this?). Something like:
    • Implement image sliders and smooth scrolling
    • Migrating our CSS pipeline to Sass
    • Make quick design decisions about interactive elements, such as button hover states and form styles.
    • Create a registration form using AngularJS.
    • Use regular expressions to detect any date within text content.
    • Recommend improvements to our Rails deployment workflow.
  • Hell, put code examples in the description. Why not? Seriously. If I saw that I would be expected to sanitize data with pure JavaScript, I wouldn't have bothered.

Storytime

That's my story. I call it "Tale of a Non-Unicorn" because, going into this application process, I kind of thought I was a unicorn. They'd be lucky to have me. I'm a designer/developer if there ever was one. But, thanks to an erroneous job description (and JavaScript... grrrrr), I realize my unicorn-ness was a fallacy. Sad face. Except not sad face at all because business is booming at Lara Schenck, LLC.

I think other people have dealt with this. Yes? No? Am I just being bitter and snarky?