The strangest job titles of the dot-com era

If you partied like it was 1999 in the tech industry in the pre-Y2K era, you may have held the title 'guru of fun'

Pre-millennial tension

If you're of a particular age -- say, old enough to have been an adult around the turn of the millenium but young enough to have not been afraid of these new-fangled "computers" everyone was using to get on the "web" back then -- you probably have at least moderately fond memories of the dot-com boom. And if you partied like it was 1999 in the tech industry in 1999, you may well have had a pretty weird job title that reflected the new -- and uncertain -- job terrain on which you found yourself. Maybe you had a business card that called you a "guru of fun!"

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Fast companies, weird titles

Fast Company, one of the defining publications of the boom years, had a recurring feature called "Job Titles of the Future," in which they interviewed people with unusual titles. Scrolling through the archives is a fascinating experience of whimsy and hubris. The founder of what was basically a consulting firm called herself a "Digital Yenta" in 2000. At Hotwire, the man in charge of "innovation planning, identity branding, and product launching" for clients was a "Visual Executive Officer." Some titles would make you cringe -- an intern chose the rather tone-deaf name "slave boy"; but the magazine treated Michael Lamb, AT&T's first Chief Privacy Officer, as a novelty that required explanation.

Ride the wave

Perhaps the laid-back dreaminess of the era was best captured by the super-relaxed title Richard Yoo chose for himself. Yoo, the cofounder of Rackspace, left that company to create a hosting service aimed at the lower end of the market. He called it ServerBeach, and to make clear his own place at the top of this chilled-out virtual seaside community, he declared himself its "Big Kahuna." The idyll didn't last, though, as the company was acquired by Peer 1 Hosting in 2004.

Let's be pals

Inventor Dean Kamen seemed to be looking for someone similarly warm and fuzzy in 2001 as he was preparing to unleash the Segway onto the world. Back when his two-wheeled super-scooter was known as "Ginger" and "It" and nobody knew what it was, he was reportedly looking for someone to run the company not under the title CEO, but rather as a "big buddy." That seems to have not happened, though. After Kamen sold the company, it was headed by a man who famously died when he drove a Segway over a cliff.

Everybody's doing it

The article that promised a buddy for Segway, Inc. wasn't in Fast Company but rather the Chicago Tribune, which by 2001 had noticed that not just dot-com but even regular, non-computer companies were doing silly things with their job titles. Why, even staid Coca-Cola with the boring headquarters you see here named Nick Bishop, the head of its advertising and marketing departments, the "vice president of consumer connection." Wacky! The less said about Fathom Studios, where everyone had faux-Victorian titles like "lady of noble influence and narrative persuasion," the better. (Side note: Bishop is currently the head of the dot-commy sounding Rundavoo.)

Blazing their own trail

Why did did this era see the rise of the silly name? Donna Hoffman, a professor of management at Vanderbilt University, took a psychological approach to answering the question. "It was a matter of doing away with everything that seemed to reek of the old," she told Businessweek in 2001. "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.'"

The bubble bursts

And yet ... the context of that quote was that it appeared in an article called "Goodbye, 'Guru of Fun,'" about the end of wacky job titles. The article, published as an "online extra" in August of 2001, after the NASDAQ had gone bust, featured a post-mortem on such frivolities: they were a product of an age when companies were desperate to retain talented people and threw any ego-boosting perk they could at them. In a period with (relatively) higher unemployment, by contrast, job-seekers wanted simpler titles that made it easier to explain to potential new bosses what their skill set actually was.

A new age of goofiness?

So what does this say of our current age, when vanity titles are once again on the rise? Is it a sign of a healthy economy, or of frothy bubble madness? Consider the title "evangelist." Declared "embarrassing" in that 2001 Businessweek article, but now omnipresent in smug Twitter bios everywhere. Even Vint Cerf, luminary that he is, chose "Chief Internet Evangelist" as his title at Google, although only because they wouldn't let him be an archduke. Management consultant Mark Stevens calls it all "corporate kindergarten playtime title-making" and "a puppet show."

Legends of the fall

One last note before we leave these crazy titles behind. In researching this article, I kept stumbling across two particularly egregious examples: the "Guru of Fun" and the "Duke of Cool." They even made their way into a 2001 print book about making your company fun. Yet I could never find any examples of real people at real companies who took these titles. Have they been expunged from resumes and LinkedIn profiles forever, out of shame? Or were they only a legend, created out of the collective unconsciousness of the dot-com bubble as the perfect distillation of the era, without concrete foundation? If you knew anyone with these titles, do let us know in the comments.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.