Job Titles, Numbers, and Levels

I was watching The Bourne Ultimatum and in one scene, the person in charge of the command center interrupts everyone who is trying to do their job with, “This is NSA priority level 4…” He is so serious when he says this. People are trying to do their work, and this guy comes in and reminds them of something that they already know, assuming they have regular security refreshers. This always makes me laugh. That bureaucracy is so ingrained in our culture that it makes into an action movie like this seems almost absurd. In the real world, I can’t imagine people working this way. It is just too inefficient. It is the kind of language I’ve seen in science fiction novels from the 1950s and 1960s.

But then, I got to thinking a bit. We do have some convoluted ways of labeling things. Take job titles, for instance. A simple description is never enough. It has to be narrow and focused, and reflect not just the job, but the level of experience. It is never “plumber” but “journeyman plumber” or “master plumber.” It’s never just “doctor” but “chief of surgery.” Even in baseball, you are not a pitcher, you are “middle relief.” In my own world, I am not a “coder” or a “project manager” but an Application Developer IV. I don’t know what the difference between an Application Developer III and an Application Developer IV is, but there you have it.

Why is it that the number that follows a job title is always written in Roman numerals? I never see “Application Developer 4”; instead, the four is written as “IV”. With the way Roman’s wrote their numbers, this translates to “one less than five” so right there in my title is the fact that I am not as good as an Application Developer V. In a profession that strives for efficiency, that extra byte of data gnaws at me. The federal government takes this to an extreme with its GS levels. There are 15 grades, from GS1 to GS15. Within each of those grades are ten “steps.” That is 150 units of distinction in just levels alone. I thought I had it bad with my Application Developer IV!

I suppose if I were to talk to an HR Specialist (III) they might tell me that the numbers provide a way to compare one job type to another. I’m not sure of the value in that. It seems like comparing apples and oranges.

Some job titles don’t have numbers, but try to be cute in other ways: things like “Chief Happiness Officer” and “Linux Guru.” These may be cute, but they are not particularly helpful.

What makes a job title exempt from Strunk & White’s elementary principles of composition?

  • Be clear
  • Omit needless words (or numbers)
  • Avoid fancy words
  • Do not overstate
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat

I think if we applied these principles to our job titles, we’d have a much better idea of what we are supposed to be doing in the first place.

When I have a leak in my house, I want a plumber. I don’t need to know if the person is a “master plumber” or not. The most important piece of information to me is how soon can you get here?

There are some good, simple titles that still exist in the world. “President of the United States” is self-explanatory, although POTUS sounds ridiculous to me. If John Adams had gotten his way, it may have been a lot worse. “Author” is a good one, although “Bestselling Author” breaks the rule of “avoid using qualifiers.” Besides, I prefer “Writer” to “Author”. I can’t say why, but “Author” sounds pretentious to me. I like “Reporter” over “Journalist.” Biologist is a good title. Lawyer is better than Attorney for the same reason Writer is better than Author. I’ll make an exception for Barrister; it is better than both.

My current (old) personal business card
My current (old) personal business card

As for me, I prefer the title of “Writer” since it encompasses everything that I do. My old business card has a title of “Writer, Blogger.” This breaks the rule of “omit needless words.” It is also redundant. I think when I get new business cards I’ll change it to “Writer” which is, after all, just right.

Did you enjoy this post?
If so, consider subscribing to the blog using the form below or clicking on the button below to follow the blog. And consider telling a friend about it. Already a reader or subscriber to the blog? Thanks for reading!

Follow Jamie Todd Rubin on


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.