Online Extra: Goodbye, "Guru of Fun"

Forget those flashy dot-com job titles. As Web companies focus on profits, they're turning gladiators into customer-service managers

In the wild and woolly days of the dot-com craze, "gladiators" and "crusaders" lorded over PeopleSupport's customer service reps, who handled call-center work for the Westwood (Calif.) company's clients. The fledgling company came up with the fanciful job titles as a way to lure prospective employees in a tight labor market. "Customer care manager" and "production supervisor?" BORRRRING. Even the marketing coordinator at PeopleSupport, which handles customer service over the phone and Web for companies including Liz Claiborne and VeriSign, rechristened herself: She became a "marketing mechanic."

"Everyone was creating new titles in Internet-speak," says Amy Berkus, a PeopleSupport spokeswoman. "We wanted titles that conveyed team spirit and a fun atmosphere. A lot of our clients were dot-coms and it just fit the time."

The time is up, evidently. The catchier titles have disappeared at the 550-employee company, along with most of its dot-com clients -- such as online retailer eToys and sports-oriented Web site Yesteryear's gladiators are now customer service managers. Crusaders? They're plain old production supervisors once again.

"NO TRANSLATION NECESSARY." The linguistic backpedaling is an effort to impress PeopleSupport's new client base -- larger, better-established companies. "I think the [traditional] titles lend themselves more to the image of a stable company that is driving toward profitability," Berkus says. "When we're talking to our clients, it is easier to refer to a production supervisor than to a crusader. No translation necessary."

In less time than it takes to say dot-com crash, many of the flashy job titles -- remember "chief morale officer" and "guru of fun?" -- that popped up on cubicle nameplates from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley have gone the way of fins on cars, says Eric Lane, who is still "chief talent strategist" at Icarian, a Sunnyvale (Calif.) workforce planning company. "They're icons of a bygone era," he says.

And of a spendthrift culture, born of easy venture and IPO money, that any serious, profit-minded company wants to leave behind. "I think 'guru of fun'" was fine for circa '98, circa '99, and circa 2000, but I don't think it works for 2001," says Michael Krauss, interactive columnist for the American Marketing Assn.'s trade publication Marketing News and a partner at DiamondCluster, a business strategy and technology consulting firm.

NEW WORKPLACE ORDER. No scientific studies track the demise of these flip, if creative, professional designations. But Marc Lewis, managing director of executive recruiter Christian & Timbers' technology and venture practice, estimates more than 100 job titles that emerged in recent years have become roadkill in the wake of the dot-com crash. "Ninety percent of the unusual titles were clearly just fringe titles created by single companies for their own purposes," he says. "As the market has cooled, the interest in creative and unusual job titles has diminished."

Actually, more than whimsy was behind many of the whimsical titles. For many a company, renaming a vice-president of marketing "V.P. of Buzz" or dressing up a head of human relations as "chief people officer" was part of an effort to get employees to think differently about their jobs. If the Internet was supposed to revolutionize the way the world did business, then folks involved in the movement had to shake up the traditional order in the workplace, the thinking went.

Khakis and polo shirts supplanted Brooks Brothers suits, cubes replaced offices, and instant messaging trumped memo writing. Just as the French tried briefly to substitute the label "citizen" for the more bourgeois "Monsieur" and "Madame" as part of their revolution, militant dot-commers adopted titles that reflected their Brave New World. "It was a matter of doing away with everything that seemed to reek of the old," says Donna Hoffman, a professor of management at Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Management, who specializes in e-commerce. "The feeling was, 'We're not like dad. We're different. The Internet calls for a different response. We're going to make new rules. We need new titles.'"

JUST ANOTHER PERK. The title tinkering also had a lot to do with finding a way to stand out at a time when the nation's pre-Net-crash unemployment rate hovered around 4%. A funky title was another bonus in a basket of dot-com perks that included stock options and free access to vending machines. Working stiffs who had been minnows at Microsoft or Goldman Sachs could jump to dot-coms as big fish. "The explosion in creative titles was tied to the ego requirements of people who wanted to be chief," Lewis says. "Everyone wanted to be a general with an army."

Problem was, of course, that many of these New Economy generals didn't know how to do battle in the marketplace. "They ran their companies into the ground," says Vanderbilt's Hoffman. At least 555 Internet companies have gone to their graves since January, 2000, with 330 of those deaths occurring in the first half of this year alone, according to research firm Many of their job titles were buried with them.

None have been quicker to leave cutesy behind than executives, who suddenly want to be taken seriously. "Chief evangelist," a title adopted by vice-presidents of corporate marketing, sounds a little embarrassing now that the Internet has failed to become the business messiah it was hyped to be, Lewis says. Likewise, "chief revenue officer" has devolved into vice-president or executive v-p of sales, Lewis says.

NO REQUESTS. When they list job experience on their resumes, executives are translating far-out titles into Old Economy language, Lewis adds. In a tightening job market, "employers want an easy way to compare jobs in the marketplace and to figure out what the salary should be," says David Van DeVoort of human resources consulting firm William M. Mercer, who works with information technology companies.

Other job titles are on the outs simply because the functions they connoted are no longer in demand. Consider "v-p of content." When money was pouring into consumer Web sites in the Net's early days, says Ted Martin, chief executive of Chicago-based headhunter Martin Partners, he was recruiting as many as two such execs a month. This year, he has had no requests to fill the position, which used to come with an annual salary as high as $200,000.

Of course, not all job titles will be thrown out with the Net's bathwater. "Webmaster" is likely to stick, since companies are still going to need someone to run their Web sites. "It still sounds respectable," says Peter Cohan, president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates, an Internet strategy consulting firm in Marlborough, Mass.

WHAT BACKLASH? Another survivor may be "head of business development" or "v-p of biz dev," a nebulous title that generally involves sales and marketing functions, with an emphasis on finding partnerships and alliances. The post became a key one at dot-coms as they sought to forge links with bigger, name-brand organizations to gain legitimacy. Demand for biz dev professionals has dropped off, but "it's a very real job," says Van DeVoort. "I just haven't seen that title cross my desk in the past six months."

Some companies, of course, are choosing to ignore the title backlash. In San Francisco, Roya Zamanzadeh, a founder of the profitable Web site design company Pear Transmedia, is still "curator of the enlightened orchard." Says Zamanzadeh of the 15-person company: "We operate mostly like a collective. I wanted to come up with a title that that reflects that." But Zamanzadeh is quick to point out that her title's acronym spells CEO. "I didn't want to scare off the Old School," she says.

One possible downside of the return to the Old School way of titling employees, Van deVoort says, is that with fewer titles to go around, employees may revert to anguishing over where they sit on the corporate totem pole: Are they a senior manager or associate director? Executive director or vice-president? For better or worse, companies tie all sorts of benefits to titles, including stock options, corner offices, and parking spots, Van deVoort adds. Your title can even determine whether your wastebasket is made of metal or wood.

"Just a year ago, the New Economy was about not focusing on your title so much as what you did," Van DeVoort says. "But now, we're moving back to a more traditional structure." And if there are no more "gurus of fun?" Given what has happened to dot-coms lately, they probably wouldn't have much to do anyway.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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