The perils of being a "CTO" fresh out of college.
Exposure to senior-level decision making is part of what draws people to startups. At early stage companies, the most junior person on the team can have a large, strategic impact. One of the perks of this exposure is that it allows you to move up quickly. You can be the first engineer, brought on to build the product MVP, and within a year you could be making all engineering hires.
One of the pitfalls of this dynamic, however, is title inflation.
Why would title inflation be a pitfall? Because your resume is a story. It tells recruiters how far you've come, what you've learned, and what kind of trajectory you're on. Listing inflated titles (and recruiters know them when they see them) makes your story less credible, and as a result, less compelling.
This can feel like a no-win scenario. If your early-stage startup gave you an inflated title, like “director of people” for a team of six, what are you supposed to put on your resume? We asked recruiters for advice.
It's important to understand how inflated titles can affect your resume. From the oldest job you list all the way to your current role, your resume should demonstrate your professional progress—recruiters are looking for that narrative. You want them to see:
William Uranga, director of talent acquisition at people search engine Spokeo, says, “The first thing in looking at somebody that applied to a role is, 'Do the current skillsets that they list or share answer what the current role is needing and going to need in the future? Then, the question becomes, 'How did they get those skills, and can they learn more? Will they be able to grow with us?'”
If your resume is sprinkled with inflated titles, it can be hard for a recruiter to draw a straight line from your first job to this role. For example, if you're applying for a job as a design associate, but previously held titles like CMO and Head of Design, the recruiter isn't going to know why this role makes sense for you. Were those previous roles legitimate—making you somewhat over qualified—or were you at your friend's startup for a short time, where you could choose any title you wanted? If so, what design work did you actually do?
If you're in a position where you've had inflated titles in the past, the challenge becomes: How do you portray your work history honestly and in a way that illustrates your upward trajectory?
If you have a very senior-sounding title from a very small company, keep the title but also include the company's size. Kathleen Prior-Louis, head of talent at AI-powered ad tech startup SteelHouse, recommends you “include the title on both (your) social profiles and resume, but to be sure to detail the exact terms, for example, 'CTO at a six-person startup.'”
Similarly, Uranga recommends that, under each title, you list the outcomes you were responsible for. “Did you ship a product? Did you create the product for the first time? Was the product that you delivered responsible for some sort of major customer that the company won or retained, or revenue that grew from point A to point B?”
When you list yourself as the former senior engineering lead for a five-person company, a recruiter can't tell at a glance what your responsibilities and contributions actually were. Clarify that for them. “It's one thing to deal with lines of code, and it's another thing to say...I actually created the engineering function itself, or turned it from waterfall methodology to agile,” Uranga says.
For example, let's say you were an engineering manager at a smaller startup. Your experience on a resume or profile should look like this:
Not like this:
Handling inflated job titles isn't any different than handling other resume red flags, including:
The key is not to shy away from discussing them, and to give enough context to prevent them from undermining the plausibility of your career's story. As Uranga says, “Look, everybody's had a bad experience in which they weren't the fit, or they didn't succeed in a role, or the environment changed... And then there's other stuff that can happen. A family member gets ill, or health issues, or life changes. I think most people are rational and understand that because they have some sort of similar experience... But you just need to be ready to explain that.”
Your natural inclination maybe to shy away from discussing a potential pitfall, like the inflated “chief of people” title from your second job, but that would be a mistake. When a recruiter asks you about it, this is an opportunity for you to take the inflated title—which is sticking out awkwardly from your resume—and make it a part of your career's narrative. Explain that though the title is a bit grandiose for a small startup, you were in charge of recruiting and HR for a team of 6 people. Tell them how the role was a major step up for you, what you learned, how you struggled, and how it prepared you for the next chapter.
Remember, your resume is your story, and it's there to get you in the door. Tell the best story you can, and anticipate the questions it will raise in the reader's—or in this case, the recruiter's—mind.
Have any inflated job titles on your resume? Update your AngelList profile to make sure recruiters aren't passing you over.