Looking for a job in tech is tough. You have to have the right skills, the right contacts, and a finely crafted resume before you even go hunting. What you don’t need are the often-complicated, semi-meaningless job titles and buzzwords floating in many job descriptions. Let’s take a look at a few of the most frequently abused ones, and what they actually mean to real people.
This isn’t a definitive list by any means, just a few that have caught our eye. They have filtered out from their inevitably silicon valley origins and into the rest of the world, no thanks to HR people and hiring managers who want to make their companies seem “hip” or “relevant” by appropriating startup language. You’ve probably heard them before.
“Growth Hacking” is only about five years old, but it’s replaced “guru” in just about every sleazy marketing person’s LinkedIn or Twitter bio. The hot new job (especially in business or marketing) is to be a “growth hacker,” which is to say you’re really a marketing professional, and your job, just like it would be without the fancy title, is to grow your business.
The phrase wasn’t always a buzzword, though. When Sean Ellis introduced the phrase in a blog post back in 2010, he lamented the lack of marketing professionals specifically using analytics and data to creatively encourage the growth of their businesses. He described the role as this:
A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinised by its potential impact on scalable growth. …The common characteristic seems to be an ability to take responsibility for growth and an entrepreneurial drive (it’s risky taking that responsibility). The right growth hacker will have a burning desire to connect your target market with your must have solution. They must have the creativity to figure out unique ways of driving growth in addition to testing/evolving the techniques proven by other companies. An effective growth hacker also needs to be disciplined to follow a growth hacking process of prioritising ideas (their own and others in the company), testing the ideas, and being analytical enough to know which tested growth drivers to keep and which ones to cut. The faster this process can be repeated, the more likely they will find scalable, repeatable ways to grow the business.
Ellis’ description is solid enough, but if “growth hacking” isn’t what marketing professionals do (and demands a whole new role be created for it,) what do marketing professionals do? After all, if the purpose of marketing is to grow the business by connecting with customers, wouldn’t this description — something marketing professionals have been doing for decades — fit them as well? The answer, depending on who you ask, is that “growth hackers” have technical and not business backgrounds, or use data to make decisions instead of…whatever marketing people use otherwise.
That’s just it: There’s no real differentiation between someone who’s a modern marketing pro with up-to-date skills and a “growth hacker” aside from the name and the fancy, startup-go-getter-entrepreneur connotations the phrase carries. The real problem with this buzzphrase boils down to the people calling themselves “growth hackers” as a way to separate themselves from “marketing professionals” or “business intelligence experts,” but who bring the same skills to the table. Just rename yourself, work for a startup or a tech company, and bask in the glow of being one of the new cool kids. You get to attend the hot new conferences and talks, join new professional associations and read tech blog posts about how important you are and how marketing will never be the same because you’re here.
Even if it started out differently, at this point the title is a distinction without a difference. In a way, you could use this to your advantage — some startup somewhere inevitably will announce they’re hiring “growth hackers,” when in reality they’re just expanding their marketing team. Know your lingo, and even if you have a resume long in the tooth with marketing gigs, you’ll be a great candidate — just rebrand yourself as a “growth hacker” and call it a day.
This one’s a hot buzzword, but the job itself isn’t really a joke. “DevOps” describes both a software development methodology and a type of IT professional that works together on a combined team of engineers, operations, and developers. Short for “development” and “operations,” DevOps gives a name to a subset of software development, systems administration, and engineering that’s always existed, just not formally. The goal for the companies hiring “DevOps engineers” is to build a team responsible for building great software on the development side that’s then properly tested and implemented by engineers, and then well-supported and maintained by operations. Ideally, communication among all of those groups is high, and people from those groups may even work together or on the same team.
Again, this is nothing that technology companies haven’t struggled with before “DevOps” became a thing, but it’s a new approach at breaking down the all-too-common walls and lack of communication between these groups except for at the very top. It’s a problem most organisations with any kind of technology staff face, even if the company isn’t a technology company. By getting development, engineering, and operations to work together closely, companies hope to build, test, and deploy faster, and react rapidly to feedback. They also want to avoid situations where operations doesn’t have tools to support a product shoved on them by dev, or engineers have no time to test a platform before it goes live, or devs wind up supporting something operations should be (but can’t, for whatever reason.)
With that in mind, DevOps can be an exciting ring to toss your hat on if you’re hunting for your next technology gig. Whether you’re a developer, an engineer, a sysadmin, or a support professional, working in DevOps can put you in a pretty hot and fast-moving field….depending on the company. As with everything else here, do your homework, talk to others in the same field, and of course, ask questions in your interview. In some companies, DevOps is a methodology, not a team. In others, it’s a small group of people with one or multiple bosses or priorities to manage. Getting “DevOps Engineer” on your resume may look hot, but it should still come with the experience and the work environment you’re looking for.
Ah, the “full stack” engineer: Almost every company wants one. This phrase is easy to find if you’ve been browsing job search boards or looking at LinkedIn profiles. Here’s the problem though: a “full stack” dev or engineer, like a unicorn, probably doesn’t really exist — at least not in the way that those companies are asking for.
Over at Medium, Scott Hadfield’s excellent feature, The full stack developer is a myth, explains it like this:
What’s expected of a “full stack” developer is far beyond the capabilities of an ordinary human. They need to understand how to scale an app to handle millions of hits a day (or hour?), what “pets vs. cattle” means and why it’s important, the reason they should choose MongoDB over MySQL (or vice versa), the CAP theorem, PaaS’s, IaaS’s, a dozen configuration management tools, whether it makes sense to built an app in Rails, Django, WordPress, Swift or a combination based on the requirements, micro services versus monolithic apps, and two dozen other things. … As I’ve mentioned, there are people who are this capable, I know some of them. But I know many more amazing developers, designers, and project managers, who don’t even come close to full stack and then even more who call themselves full stack but can barely define more than half a dozen of the words in the stack I posted above (which arguably even misses layers, such as where the JRE or Node.js would sit) let alone judge the interaction between two or more of the components. And this is where the problem comes in. In almost all the cases I see full stack used (particularly in job postings), the actual meaning of what the company is looking for is simply “someone amazing”.
The chart above, also from Hadfield’s piece, is a good look at what the “stack” in “full stack” includes. If your eyes glaze over just reading it, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean that you’re not qualified for those jobs where overzealous HR pros, managers, or startup founders slapped it into the job requirements. It just means you should look more closely at the tools the company actually uses to see if you’re a good fit, or have experience working with them. If you have to do more digging to learn more about the company (or better yet, talk to insiders there) to find out, do it. Sadly, this buzzword serves to obfuscate real requirements for a potential job.
Hadfield goes on in his piece to explain something that’s true about a lot of the buzzwords here — they’re no different from “guru” or “ninja” or “rockstar,” they have come to just mean “good at whatever you need me to be good at,” without being demonstrable. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should update your LinkedIn bio or resume header to say you’re a “full stack developer”. It does, however, mean you shouldn’t shy away from applying for those jobs if you know you’re qualified.
Content Marketing, like “growth hacking,” is marketing-focused. In this case, it’s a pretty fancy term for “uses media tactics for advertising.” That’s not exactly bad, per se, it’s just that it’s a field (and an industry) packed with bad actors. There’s nothing wrong with using the same tools that everyone else on the internet uses (like blogs, video, podcasts, and so on) for marketing purposes. If you can write articles that are genuinely engaging, make video that’s actually interesting, and record podcasts people want to listen to — and do it all in the service of the company you’re trying to promote — then more power to you.
Unfortunately this buzzphrase takes a mysterious and dark turn when you’re looking for a job in the field. So many “content marketing” gigs are less focused on the whole “actually making good stuff” and more “plastering your customer’s name and message all over the place for money.” Over at Cracked, Mark Hill’s dress-down of one such “content marketing” gig lays bare what these kinds of jobs really have to offer. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re always one or two steps on this side of “write an article that’s interesting and relevant to our customers or people we want to be our customers” as opposed to “write an advertorial and convince reputable sites to publish it,” or “pay the internet to talk about us.” The latter is often referred to as “native advertising,” which itself comes in many, sometimes questionable, forms.
For example, sites like the always awesome Preceonomics do this the right way — their articles are interesting, always informative, and extremely well written and researched — but when you read them, you often don’t even know you’re reading the side blog of a company that performs detailed data analysis and collection services. When you think about it though, it makes sense: They put their research and critical analysis skills to good use writing articles that showcase the kinds of things they’re capable of. On the other side of the line? Well, you remember The Atlantic‘s Scientology advertorial, right?
That brings us back to content marketing. Since content marketing is, essentially, marketing a business through “content,” (which is icky enough of a word that it should put you off), if you see this on a job description or hear it in an interview as part of the job you’re applying for, you should be as diligent asking about this job as you would be if someone were trying to sign you up for a pyramid scheme. Make absolutely sure that the company you’re looking at stays on the right side of that line, and doesn’t devolve into “try to work our name into every other paragraph” or “offer the editor of that site i’ve never read but heard is popular fifty bucks to write about us.” If you’re thinking about a career in marketing and your company wants you to get into content marketing — or you see it as an item in a job description you’re interested in, be ready to ask lots of questions in your interview if you want to come out with your soul intact.
Applying for a job in this new age of marketing and engineering is more complicated than ever. Startups look for buzzwords and phrases to separate themselves and their culture from bigger business (and of course, their competition), so we get job titles like “growth hacker” that seem to mean a lot, but simultaneously mean nothing at all. At the end of the day, push past the buzzwords and catch titles, don’t be lured in by shiny lingo (especially when you’ll wind up doing something people have been doing for years, just under different names), and stick to your skills and what you want out of a career. You’ll be fine.