Every so often, I read a blog post or essay about the undesirable state of the software industry, and occasionally someone will suggest that we ought to unionize, in order to put an end to long hours and low pay compared to the value we produce. The argument is that, because software engineers are potentially worth millions per year to their employers, collective bargaining is the best way to capture more of this value. I disagree that a labor union is the way to go, because of the highly variable output of a software engineer, and the need for continuing education in this line of work. What we actually need is a profession.
Unions work best for commodity labor, and I use that term non-pejoratively. Commodity work is easily measurable and people can often be individually evaluated for performance. For example, a fishing boat operator is measured according to the quantity of fish she procures. A lot of very important work is commodity labor, so I don’t intend to disparage anyone by using that term. Commodity work can be unionized because there aren’t large and often intangible discrepancies in quality of output, and collective bargaining is often the best way to ensure that the workers are fairly compensated for the value they produce. Software is not commodity work, however. It’s difficult to measure quality, and the field is so specialized that engineers are not remotely interchangeable. When the work is difficult to measure and large disparities of quality exist, you have a situation in which a certain less-egalitarian (in the sense of allowing top performers to receive high compensation, because it’s essential to encourage people to improve themselves) and more self-regulatory structure is required: a profession.
The term professional is one of the most overused words in the English language, conflated often with white-collar work in general. If you work in an air-conditioned environment, someone will call you a professional. Most white-collar workers are not professionals, even in industries like investment banking, consulting, and management. Professionalism has nothing to do with social status, job category, or behavior (in the sense of an “unprofessional comment”). Rather, it’s all about a certain style of ethical structure, and the structure of a profession is nearly nonexistent in most white-collar industries (and under attack within the true professions).
What is a profession?
A profession is an attempt to impose global structure over a category of specialized, cognitively intensive work where the quality of output has substantial ramifications, but is difficult (if not, in the short term, impossible) to measure, giving ethics and competence primary importance. A profession is needed when it’s clear that not everyone can perform the work well, especially without specialized training. Here are some traits that signify the existence of a profession.
- Ethical obligations that supersede managerial authority. Professions have global ethical standards that the professional may not break, even under pressure from an employer. “Following orders” is not a defense. Therefore, the professional is both allowed and required to be autonomous in ethical judgment. It is rare for people to be fired, in true professions, because of disagreements with managers or political misfortune, but unethical behaviors are punished severely (in the worst cases, leading not only to termination but expulsion from the profession). This said, ethical demands on a profession may not match the common sense we have of ethics; they must be industry-specific. For example, attorneys’ stringent requirement to keep client information secret (attorney-client privilege) supersedes concerns regarding whether the client’s behavior itself is ethical; it’s not for the attorney to make that call.
- Weak power relationships. This is directly related to the above. In order to prevent the ethical lapses that are disturbingly common in non-professional work, and the abuses of power that are often behind those, professions deliberately weaken supervisory power relationships, with the intention of making it difficult for a manager to unilaterally fire an employee or damage his reputation. The result of this is that professionals answer to their companies or the profession directly. Professions attempt deliberately to be “bossless” so people will do what’s right rather than what’s politically expedient.
- Continuing improvement and self-direction as requirements. The professions assume change both in terms of what kinds of work will be valuable, and of what tools will be available to do it, and expect people to dedicate time to adapt to it without managerial permission or direction.
- Allowance for self-direction. Professionals are expected to place their career objectives at a high priority, since they serve the profession and their employers by becoming better at their work. Traditionally, metered work (that is, work directly relevant to the line of business) expectations in professions have been about 800 to 1200 hours per year, with the expectation that an equal amount will be spent on “off-meter” work such as attending conferences, reading journals, pursuing exploratory projects, mentoring others, and (at senior levels) looking for business or supporting the profession.
- Except in egregious cases, an agreement between employee and firm to serve each others’ interests, even after employment ends. Professionals are almost never fired, in the cinematic sense of the word. If a firm wants to get rid of someone, that person is encouraged to look for new employment on working time, and therefore allowed to represent himself as employed and retain an income during the job search. When people actually are fired, they’re typically offered a severance. In the rare case that a professional firm must lay people off or close an office for economic reasons, it gives as much notice as it can of the change, and announces the layoff in the public to protect departing employees’ images. That employee will almost always be given a positive reference (not the neutral “name and dates” reference that is often taken as negative) in exchange for his time. Efforts are made to protect the reputations of departing employees, who are expected to return the favor by speaking well of previous companies and colleagues. Additionally, employees who leave the firm are treated as alumni rather than deserters.
If I were to sum it up, I’d say that professionalism is about liberal service, and my use of the word “liberal” has nothing to do with political ideology. Rather, it’s the same etymology as “liberal arts”, where “liberal” means “pertaining to free people”. Professional service is that which is judged to be intellectually and ethically demanding enough that it should only be done by free people, not serfs or “wage slaves” who lack the autonomy for trust to be placed in them. The efforts that professions exert to curtail managerial authority are in place to prevent situations of ethical compromise, as well as political influences that might result in inferior work.
This is not to say that the professions are workplace utopias. I doubt that any workplace is perfectly clean, politically speaking, and the imperatives of a profession may improve behavior, but can’t change human nature wholesale. What I would argue, however, is that the global structure and protection of a profession protects the individual worker, to some degree, from local adversity. A doctor can be fired by his supervisor, but he’s still a doctor. Regular workers lose their credibility when their employment ends. Professionals don’t.
It’s all about the “Bozo Bit”.
The difference between a profession and regular work is the default assumption about an unknown person’s character, intellect, and competence. In typical industrial work, the “Bozo Bit” starts out in the “On” position, meaning that a typical worker is assumed to be stupid, treacherous, and useless. Since barriers to entry are low, the only thing that defines a worker is wanting money, and being willing to do unpleasant tasks in order to get it. There’s no respect for the average, individual member in such an industry; the default assumption is incompetence, ethical depravity, and childlike stupidity. One has to prove non-bozoism, which is usually established with a managerial role or other formal sanction: a “manager-equivalent” job title. (Non-professional companies typically make the work environment bad enough for non-managers that the default assumption is that anyone competent will become a manager.) Proving non-bozoism is often very difficult to do, because workers who attempt to do so are often fired for attempting to make their case instead of doing their assigned work. If you’re assumed to be a bozo, you probably won’t get the autonomy that would enable you to prove otherwise.
In this style of working environment, people without official managerial sanction (such as coveted job titles) have no credibility and therefore can be discarded on a whim. People with such decorations have only minimal power, because they can be deprived of these assets immediately, and often unilaterally. The result is an environment where all the power is held by the people who disburse funds, job titles, performance reviews, and authority, and in which the workers have none. Except at the top, there is no autonomy, because a manager can reduce the worker’s credibility to zero for any reason or no reason at all.
Professions clear the Bozo Bit (i.e. default it to “Off”) by making it difficult for incompetent people to enter, and punishing objectively unethical people severely. This gives people the assurance that a professional is highly likely to be both competent and ethical. In doing so, they create a high-trust zone. A person who completes medical school is a doctor and, unless the license is revoked because of a serious ethical lapse, has valuable expertise. No manager or employer can take that credibility away for political reasons.
Is software engineering a profession?
No. It’s not.
Professionals have the right to disobey managerial authority if they believe they are ethically right in doing so. On the other hand, a software engineer who refuses to cut corners or hide defects under managerial instruction has no recourse and will probably be fired.
Professionals take great pains to avoid disparaging others’ work in the public, preferring to keep feedback private. Many software engineers work in companies where performance reviews are part of an employee’s packet any time she wishes to transfer, and wherein a negative review can leave a person internally black-listed.
Professionals are allowed and expected to dedicate about half their working time to career development and continuing education. Many software engineers will get fired if they get caught in that.
Professionals have an external credibility that is independent of reporting to a specific manager or being employed at a specific firm, which enables them to serve the profession and the abstract ethical principles it values. The rest of workers don’t. They have managers who can unilaterally fire them from their current jobs (or, at least, damage their reputations through the aggressive performance review systems that are now the norm). Therefore, they have no option other than to serve their direct manager’s career goals, even if those diverge from the company’s needs or the employee’s long-term career objectives.
Most software engineers fall into the “rest of workers” category. They don’t have the right to buck managerial authority, and companies rarely allot time for their continuing education and career needs. Some have to fucking use vacation days to attend conferences!
Are the professions still relevant?
In Corporate America, the professions have been losing ground for at least half a century. Attorneys’ metered work demands have grown substantially, so that associates can’t participate in the off-meter work on which their careers depend, resulting in slowed development. It’s now typical that a “biglaw” associate is expected to log 2000 billable hours (metered work) and it’s therefore nearly impossible for her to build the business contacts necessary for transition into partnership. Academia and basic research have lost most of their funding and prominence. Professionalism remains in medicine for doctors, but the aggressively anti-professional insurance companies are working just as hard to deny care as doctors do to deliver it. Journalism is becoming more about entertainment, as objectivity is thrown to the wind by many participants. In sum, it seems that all of the professions have seen an erosion of status and, for lack of a better word, professionalism over the past few decades.
Why is the corporate world killing the professions? There’s an irreducible disparity between the professions and corporations. Professions are republics that exist to serve global, ethical objectives, and professionals happen to make money because the service they provide is valuable to others. Corporations are autocratic, amoral machines that exist to make money regardless of whether they provide any useful service, and the scope of service expected is local: take direct orders, don’t think for yourself. Workers serve their managers, who serve executives, and executives serve the short-term vacillations of the company’s stock price. A worker doesn’t have the right to prioritize work that she considers more beneficial (for the company, or the industry) than what her manager has told her to do. In the non-professional world, she doesn’t get to make that call.
Contemporary corporate leaders consider the professions to be archaic (I consider them to be archaic, but I won’t go there just yet) relics of a pre-capitalist era, unable to compete in a more ruthless business environment. This explains their scorn for government officials, journalists, and most especially professors who are “insulated” from the market. From a business person’s perspective, what the professions value is, if not supported by the market, then not worth preserving. (One exception: attorney-client privilege is a very strong ethical demand for lawyers, and business leaders are very glad for that one!) For this reason, they’re hostile toward the core ideas coming out of professions: the right to resist authority, the expectation of doing what is right rather than what is expedient, the diversion of half one’s working time into continuing growth and development, and the encouragement to seek external visibility that gives a person credibility independent of employment status. Finally, business leaders view professions, which intercede against managerial authority and thereby confer benefits on the professionals, as extortive institutions like guilds, or perhaps even command economies.
Why are the business leaders wrong? They are right about the superiority of market economies over command economies, but I don’t think that point is in contention anymore. They are wrong because they believe the professions can’t thrive in the market. That they can has been proven by a Seattle video game company called Valve, one of the only companies to truly professionalize software development, and one of the most successful software companies on Earth.
I’ve written a lot about Valve and its open allocation policy, under which engineers are trusted to move their desks to join another team as they wish. There’s no transfer process, and teams don’t have “headcount” constraints. Projects that no one wants to do don’t get done, unless they are genuinely important enough for the executives to create an incentive for it. Project supervision is driven by leadership and consensus rather than executive authority. What is open allocation about, philosophically? (For more about Valve’s open allocation, read this excellent blog post by Yanis Varoufakis.) It’s about professionalizing game and software development. Engineers are actually trusted to work for the company, rather than a manager who might use authority to divert their efforts toward the manager’s own goals (including preservation of the power relationship). Valve’s employees have an ethical commitment– make Valve better– they are expected to hold, but they have autonomy in how they do so. They live in the sort of high-trust zone that professions exist to create.
Not only do I believe that the professions can thrive in the market, but I think that professionalized software development will be superior to the industrial-age managed framework. Most of the progress in software comes from creative successes, which can be thought of as black swans. It is impossible to manage them into existence, and subordination will kill them before they are born. The best you can do, if you have managerial authority, is to use it as rarely as possible. At scale, you can be confident that people will come up with great ideas, and that enough of them will be profitable to justify the time and resources committed.
Ethics of a Technologist
Should software become a profession? I would say that the answer is a resounding “yes”. This emerging profession should not require expensive schooling. One of the things that’s great about programming is that no educational credential is required to enter, and I think we should keep it that way. However, I think that the idea of a global ethical structure is a sound one, and here are some thoughts.
I am using the term “technologist” for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to limit my scope to software engineers, but to include a larger set of people who work on technology, such as designers and software testers and startup founders. The second is that the most important thing for a technologist to do, at a given time, may not be to write code. Sometimes, writing more code is not the answer: cleaning the existing stuff is better. As professionals, we should expect ourselves to do what is right for the problem we are trying to solve, not what allows us to write the most code.
Here are some basic, bedrock ethical principles that I think should be part of the technologist profession.
- Technologists do not create an inferior product for personal or single-party gain. We do not create “logic bombs” to extort clients or “back doors” that allow us to exploit systems we create. We do not create bugs for the purpose of “finding” them later. While we cannot ensure perfect software quality (it’s mathematically impossible to do so) we will not compromise on quality unless we believe it to be in the interest of all parties involved. We deliver the best product or service we can with the resources given to us, and if the resources given are not enough, we voice that concern.
- Technologists collaborate. We do not compete by harming another’s performance. We believe the world to be positive-sum and our industry is structurally cooperative. Therefore, to the extent that we compete, it’s in the direction of making ourselves better at our jobs, not making others worse. We also do not make technical decisions for the purpose of reducing another technologist’s ability to perform.
- Technologists do not disparage another’s performance to a non-technologist. Ever. All people with managerial authority are considered “non-technologists”, in the context of this item. Put simply: we don’t sell each other to outsiders. People who break this policy are fired for life from the profession. We handle our own affairs, period. If we need to remove a technologist from our team for reasons of incompetence or non-performance, we have the right to tell a non-technologist that this person cannot continue as a member of the team, and we are neither obligated nor allowed to give further reasons. We handle matters among ourselves, and do not attempt to use managerial warlords for personal gain. It’s up to us to form and disband teams, and to expel problematic members.
- Technologists choose their own leaders. It is not for non-technologist meddlers to decide who are the leaders of our groups. We shall not answer to stooges selected by executives. We choose our leaders, typically through democratic processes, and leaders who fail to serve the groups they are supposed to lead shall lose that distinction.
- Technologists work for the greater good of the company that employs them, the Technologist profession, and the greater good of the world. We serve the world first; our job is to make it better by improving technical processes, solving difficult but important problems, and advancing the state of science and rationality. Secondarily, we serve the Technologist profession and its values. As a tertiary concern, we act in the interests of our employers. We solve their technical problems and work to improve their infrastructure. Technologists are trusted to serve their employers directly, and any management that exists must be purely for providing guidance, not an irresistible authority. As a quaternary concern, technologists are expected and allowed to prioritize their own career growth, making themselves more valuable in the future.
- Technologists are trusted to work on any project that will have them. It is the right of the project owner to allow (or expel) members. Projects shall not be constrained by “head count” limitations set by non-technologists, who are to be deemed unqualified to make such distinctions.
- Technologists deliver on commitments they make. If a technologist cannot meet a commitment, he or she explains the cause as soon as possible, and attempts in earnest to address the shortfall. Additionally, it is not for managers to pressure technologists into making commitments that they would otherwise consider unreasonable. This “always deliver” policy only applies to freely made commitments, not any made under managerial duress.
- Technologists have the right to refuse work, unless it is of existential importance to the firm, or work that they have freely committed to doing. The only time a technologist can be required to complete a project he or she did not choose is when the company is at credible risk of failure or catastrophic loss if the work is not completed. Even then, it is best for the company to try to provide incentives (such as bonuses or promotions) before resorting to authority.
- Technologists have the right to inquire about other specialties without facing professional repercussions. Technologists are not fired or dismissed as “not a team player” when they voice concerns about a discrepancy between the work expected of them and the direction they want to take in their career, or the specialties into which they want to grow. Rather, technologists are encouraged to be direct and forthright about the specialties that interest them, and companies shall make reasonable efforts to allow them to find appropriate work.
- Making mistakes is tolerable; honesty about mistakes is required. The employment arena for a technologist must be one where people are not punished for making mistakes, or for discovering and revealing mistakes made by others. However, knowingly hiding a mistake, when it risks harm to others, is a grave ethical fault.
- Terminated employees recieve proper career support. Companies will sometimes need to fire a technologist, if he is unable to lead (as determined by other technologists) or follow within the context of the firm. When companies terminate, they always grant the right to represent oneself as employed during the job search, and provide a positive reference unless the employee was fired for a grave ethical breach. Companies that would be considered (reasonable person standard) able to afford severance pay it, in a large enough amount to cover the expected time for a job search. This does not apply to pre-funded startups (the risk is well-known) or companies in financial distress (that can’t afford it).
- Companies and investors do not create “no poach” or “do not hire” lists. Anyone who breaks these rules is censured severely and turned over to law enforcement. Investors are also disallowed from communicating any information about a technologist that might prevent him from getting further investment, unless a formal breach of ethics was involved.
- 1200 hours of metered work, per year, as a maximal obligation under normal circumstances. The general expectation is that a full-time technologist will deliver 400 to 1200 hours per year of metered work (work that is relevant to the direct line of business, and non-discretionary) per year. Companies have the right to increase metered work expectations in unusual circumstances. It is up to the company to decide what those circumstances are, but if they exist, they should be disclosed before an employment agreement begins (e.g. these are situations we consider abnormal, and these are the expectations we’ll have if they occur). Otherwise, the default assumption is that the company should expect no more than this level of direct dedication. Expecting anything more is to expect the employee to take on unreasonable risk of career stagnation. This 1200-hour standard shall be pro-rated for people who have part-time employment agreements.
- 800 hours of off-meter work as a minimal expectation of the technologist. “Full time” (2000 hours per year) technologists are usually expected to dedicate the remaining (800 or more) hours to off-meter work: continuing education, attending conferences, exploratory work and research, career-directed open source work, and pursuit of other specialties. This is not an obligation per se, but technologists should expect to spend this time if they wish to be maximally relevant, and companies shall be expected to allow time for it. This eliminates the excuse that many programmers have currently for stagnation and mediocrity, which is that their bosses won’t allocate time for growth. If we become a technologist profession, we will make allowance for such time an inflexible pillar.
This is just a starting set of principles. I’m sure I will remember more, but my intent here is to indicate what a technologist profession will look like.
One final thought: selectivity
My word count’s getting high, indicating that I should wrap this up, but I’d like to address one other concern: Who do we let in? What’s the barrier to entry? Here are my initial thoughts.
No formal education is required to become a technologist. Technologists are expected to have the breadth of knowledge of an average college graduate from a top-50 university, but how they get it is up to them. Age, socioeconomic status, educational matriculations, and national origin are irrelevant. Anyone with the competence can be a technologist, but we shall set the bar for competence very high. I think the best model for this is actuarial science in the United States, where progress is exam-based. Classes and study guides are available, but not required. Additionally, the profession requires and expects that associates will dedicate a significant fraction of their working time to studying for the exams.
There are a few tweaks I’d make to this system. The first is that, instead of a linear series of eight or ten exams, there shall be a larger number, with some being elective. The courses on technological ethics, basic mathematics, code quality and scientific thought would generally be required, for example. Machine learning, startup economics, and compilers courses would be optional. The second is that some courses would require code, and most courses would have a non-exam option whereby, for example, a high-quality open-source contribution could be substituted for a typical exam. (This is because, while most people who are “not a good test taker” are just lazy, the condition does exist and alternative evaluation is appropriate for making the profession maximally inclusive of talent.)
The purpose of these exams would be to provide an alternative path to success and true independent credibility for technologists, and to deprive parochial managers of the ability to reduce a technologist’s credibility to zero. They would not necessarily be required for a technologist to have employment, but they would be designed to be difficult and relevant enough to increase a professional’s employability dramatically– so dramatically as to give the technologist true independence of managerial authority.
That is all I have to say on this matter tonight, so I yield the floor.