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I am a programmer (jacquesmattheij.com)
337 points by vijaydev on Nov 1, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 122 comments

The problem I have with Patrick's essay ("you are not a programmer") is that it addresses a situation that hardly any developer ever finds himself in. If I go to interview for an engineer position, it matters exactly not one bit that I try to pass myself off as a solutions architect or a business problem solver, except for possibly some awkward glances back and forth. All they want to know is how long I've been coding Blub, which frameworks I use and why did I quit my last job? If all is well I will start on Monday with checking out the SVN repo and start getting to know the code. Should I start trying to analyze the company's business processes that would be an awkward conversation indeed with the department manager.

I think that is the reality most developers find themselves in. I doubt it's been any different for Patrick until the consultancy spinoffs he can now pull on account of his personal brand.

So I kind of agree with Jacques here, with the exception that I don't call myself a programmer in conversation with people outside the field, since it sounds a bit like "punch card operator". That doesn't change the fact that I really am a programmer first and foremost.

a situation that hardly any developer ever finds himself in

"To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish."

(Sorry, have actual work to do today, so I'm going to reply mainly in epigrams where I can. ;)

pass myself off as... a business problem solver

Nobody is suggesting that. You don't pretend to solve problems for your business. At least, the business doesn't think so. They pay you. They don't pay people just for fun. They obviously think you're solving some kind of problem, right now.

Even within the seventh layer of a nine-layer bureaucracy, your peers have a problem that they are paying you to solve. Figure out what it is and learn to talk about that.

This needn't be self-aggrandizement, either. "I am one of ten interchangeable members of the QA team that keeps our customers happily renewing their subscriptions by finding bugs before they even see them" is fine. You needn't claim to walk on water all by yourself. People like loyal team players.

If you find that you can't talk about your problem without feeling dirty: That's a data point. If part of the job is "follow orders without thinking like a good little interchangeable part", that's a data point. If you discover that the problem you're solving is "win our division's internal war against the Other Division, customers be damned", you have a data point. If you come to the conclusion that you are in fact paid to cause problems, but the company can't figure that out because the intervening tangle of bureaucracy is disguising the fact, that's a data point. Try to keep doing your job well, but as the data points accumulate, and depending on your personality, you may find that other jobs are calling.

Nobody is suggesting that. You don't pretend to solve problems for your business. At least, the business doesn't think so. They pay you. They don't pay people just for fun. They obviously think you're solving some kind of problem, right now.

Well, often the 'problem' as such is "lack of programmers". The business value/problem has already defined by other people, and a solution decided on, and you need to code it. At least, that's the position I'd been in in the past. I might have come up with a clever algorithm that solved a particular internal problem on that project, but the overarching project being worked on wasn't really solving the original business problem that was presented. However, as lowly-coder-#17, no one really cares what your views are - the problem you're solving is manpower to implement someone else's vision, right or wrong.

Patrick's essay is for people who want more pay, recognition, and authority in a company that is not primarily a software company. If you aren't facing that particular problem, you don't need his solution. Hopefully you found it interesting anyway.

> ... it matters exactly not one bit that I try to pass myself off as a solutions architect or a business problem solver, except for possibly some awkward glances back and forth.

Exactly, if he came to our shop to interview for an engineering position but would rather talk about making 'dreams come true' instead of algorithms or systems design, we would kindly show him towards the door.

Engineering shops don't like bullshit. If you are interviewing with HR sure, use business-speak all you want.

But perhaps the fact that there is even an HR dept. that will digest business speak like that, is a sign that you are interviewing at the wrong company.

The problem I have with Patrick's essay ("you are not a programmer") is that it addresses a situation that hardly any developer ever finds himself in.

I think he was attempting to stress that the fact that developers don't find themselves in that situation is a little tragic. His essay suggests that in the right industries with somewhat more optimistic marketing the programmer's skillset is almost akin to magic. You take more responsibility for understanding how computers can solve problems, but by doing that become something irreplaceable.

The "reality" is context-limited, as are Patrick's suggestions. If you're willing to market more, though, Patrick's reality is pretty compelling.

You did not understand Patrick's essay.

He did not say give yourself a ridiculously fancy sounding title. He said tell them what you've done in the past and give yourself a title that engenders respect from your non-hacker friends. For example, if you tell people you are a software architect and you designed the system that made your company X million dollars, you will get respect.

If you don't spend at least some time thinking of your companies business processes then your just a non-thinking cog. Challenging these types of things is not only how you get ahead, but it's how you differentiate yourself from the non-thinking cogs.

It only gets respect because it's a kind of lie. You aren't an architect. You aren't an engineer. You write code, making up programs.

A secretary is a secretary. If people decided that's a bad thing to be, that's a shame. But it doesn't help to change the word to 'administrator,' which means something different.

"We're middle-men (and women), glorified translators"

By that rationale, teachers are glorified dictionaries, accountants are glorified calculators, and lawyers are glorified secretaries.

"Programmers don't 'unemploy' people"

Bullshit. If I build an automated fraud detection system for a bank and they lay off 50 people in charge of fraud detection after it goes live, I most certainly made their jobs redundant. If I build a more efficient control system for an automobile plant, and they lay off operators as soon as it goes live, I've certainly made their jobs redundant. Efficiency kills jobs by definition. You only create more jobs when you start in a new area, or as a competitor. And even then it's only temporary until efficiencies kill those jobs as well.

"As a ground rule, as long as you are calling other peoples modules you're not yet programming"

Then, as a ground rule, as long as you're drawing triangles, arches, and straight lines, or using a CAD program, you're not yet architecting. As long as you're using 2x4s or windows made of glass you didn't blow yourself to build a house, you're not yet building.

Why does everything have to be built fron scratch in an intellectual vacuum in order to be "real"? Isn't the whole point to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before?

"Whether you use the word programmer to describe yourself or not has very little to do with what your bank statement tells you at the end of every month."

Actually, it has a LOT to do with what your bank statement tells you at the end of the month. The world runs on respect. And respect comes from other people. Give yourself a title that engenders respect and you'll find yourself able to negotiate FAR better deals for yourself than you would with a less respectable "I'm-just-a-replaceable-cog" title.

"And in such places (and unfortunately also in quite a few smaller ones) the market value of what a person doing your work is charging is what will determine your pay"

No, the market value of a person with your TITLE is what will determine your pay, unless you're known to be a pushover who accepts promotions without pay increases. And if such a 'promotion' happens, you gladly accept it anyway, and then leave 6 months later with your new title to leverage a better salary.

I think this mini-debate is a clash of personal values more than anything else.

Jacques is essentially saying, "I'm a programmer, and I'm secure in that. Even when I'm just gluing existing code together, I'm damn good at it. I know that being a programmer who hacks code, first and foremost, doesn't make me a replaceable cog."

Others are not satisfied to think of themselves as doing gritty work that is not always an act of creative expression or a uniquely inspired solution. If I'm just wiring stuff together, the thought goes, surely anyone can do that? Ah, but the creativity lies in the problem solving, and that's what the employer/client cares about anyway. So I'm a problem-solver, first, and a programmer second.

I think some people are happy to be "just programmers" or "programmers first" and others are "programmers second."

In reality, there aren't two different jobs called "Software Engineer" and "Programmer" across companies, though glamour of title may be a hint as to how a company values and treats their programmers/engineers. If you have 20 years of programming experience and are hired to write code, you're a programmer by default. Whether the work is dull or interesting, creative or rote, or paints you as an "artiste" or a "cog in a machine" depends on the job rather than what you call yourself.

It can't hurt to bill yourself as a problem-solver with business and entrepreneurial savvy, etc., as companies will always say they want people with iniative and higher-level thinking, even if they aren't prepared to let you exercise it. Put another way, no potential employer is going to say, "We're looking for a programmer, but it says here you're an engineer. Are you sure you're not over-qualified for this position?" Your self-given title won't save you. On the flip side, a good company looking for highly creative engineers will know that many of them call themselves "programmers."

In summary, I see the "don't call yourself a programmer" advice as coming out of fear of being a replaceable menial worker, more than reflecting any reality about hiring practices or the deep nature of programming. Jacques's argument is, "Programming can be pretty menial sometimes, but good programmers are hard to replace. So avoid the duller work, and solve people's problems, and you can have a happy, highly-paid career."

Efficiency kills jobs by definition.

Yes, efficiency kills (old, existing) jobs, but that gives new leverage to expand production beyond what it was before.

That's why the wheel, the industrial revolution, etc. have all increased the well-being of the world, not decreased it.

It's called progress.

"Yes, efficiency kills (old, existing) jobs, but that gives new leverage to expand production beyond what it was before."

This is moving beyond the original point, but since we're here...

When increased efficiency kills jobs, the now jobless need to move onto some other form of employment. We saw this happen in migrations from farming to factory jobs, and now from factory jobs to service jobs. That area is safe for now since it's still hard to increase efficiency in services such as grooming, food preparation, entertainment, driving, and yard trimmers, compared with industrial production.

So there's still a certain stability in the current system that is not disrupted by emerging efficiencies, but that won't last forever. Eventually, even the services industry will become efficient, at which point the trend of jobs becoming scarce will accelerate to the point where it becomes impossible to employ everyone, unless you start inventing "busy work" jobs or change the work-to-live dynamic.

I'm neither calling it good nor bad; I'm just highlighting the need to come to terms with it, because it will come regardless of our preparation.

I'm neither calling it good nor bad

That's the real issue at stake. You should be calling it good, because it's progress.

It's somewhat conceivable that there can be times in future human history where there are large chunks of people who aren't capable of doing any productive work, but they probably won't be lasting. [1]

And for everyone who can find productive work, more efficiency in the global economy enables more production, thus more progress, and is therefore a plus.

[1] Partially because if we do things right, population will gracefully degrade in times when fewer jobs are available. (I'm not advocating more social controls to achieve this; providing additional money per-child to those on welfare, for example, goes strongly against this.)

I'm not calling it good because I just don't see the graceful transition occurring. If anything, I see massive upheaval because almost everyone will deny the reality around them until it becomes impossible to do so.

In a perfect world, I'd agree with you. However, we don't live in a perfect world.

Do you have any ideas on how to avoid or cope with this massive upheaval?

I agree with you javert, that increased efficiency and productivity are good things. But I do so for a fairly uncommon reason: I think that we have very little idea of the capacity of one person.

Our economy is still marked by massive disruption: technological innovation isn't just limited to services. Process engineering, chemical engineering, astronomy, physics, linguistics, archeology, ... they're all experiencing disruption at an increasing pace. They all increase GDP.

To me, this is an indication that as we provide people with powerful tools, their minds expand to use those tools. The exponential feedback may become much more smooth (less "disruptive") but I think we're a long way from a local maximum.

The current economy still "feels" like an idling 2-stroke leaf blower to me. It sputters and races because its carburetor and ignition are, well, inefficient.

What would it take to get a jet engine-like economy?

I like what you're saying.

However, you're not answering your comment's grandparent: how to avoid, cope with, or assume away the concern that a super-high-tech economy will leave unemployed people who aren't intellectually sophisticated enough to participate.

That's a good point. The other replies suggest that "almost everybody in the world" is unlikely to learn new skills, yet they are doing amazingly well, at some things.

Threats to survival do tend to motivate "almost everybody" to attempt new skills, or attempt to change things in their favor. I deliberately avoided saying what the changes ought to be. And I don't think there are real, present threats to survival for most of us. I don't think it's a good idea to rain down mandates on "everybody else," when society is already discovering better means by working organically. I like to think of that as innovation.

My main intent in posting was to point out that there are solutions being found -- not by the "invisible hand" of economics, but by the collaborative efforts of the non-intellectual non-sophisticated "unwilling participants." Though I think education eventually has the highest payoff, I enjoy working at a community level with the innovation happening all around me.

or assume away the concern that a super-high-tech economy will leave unemployed people who aren't intellectually sophisticated enough to participate.

Is changing your intellectual sophistication hard? I mean, I learn programming by basically bashing my fingers against the keyboard. The concepts aren't difficult to learn, but it require tons of practice to become competent.

Well, that's one (potentially valid) way to explain away the concern.

(I should have said "explain away" instead of "assume away.")

I personally work a lot with 3d animation. We use plugins and pre-made elements to create our animations. Because we are using 3rd party tools to create our final product, does this make us "middle-men (and women), glorified translators", Or is it only real if we where to make our tools form scratch.

Is changing your intellectual sophistication hard?

Uhm, how isolated are you from large swaths of society, to ask this question? The answer is yes, once a person matures into adulthood if they haven't acquired this and an appreciation for learning they almost certainly aren't going to. There are people who regard most intellectual activity with disinterest in the best case, and outright hostility in the worst. This group of people is known as "almost everybody in the world".

As for what to do with them, probably the most consistent approach if you want to stick to something resembling market economics is to let them starve. My objection to that isn't so much moral as it is practical (i.e. I dislike riots), and I favor giving them money instead.

It's not an easy problem to solve, and certainly not something I could come up with a reasonable answer to in short order...

One additional wrinkle will be the tendency of the poor to have more children than the rich, exacerbating the jobs-to-people ratio problem.

Developed countries might provide a safety net and strong job retraining programs

The problem I had with Patrick's essay is how derogatory it is to what we do.

I am a programmer because it's what I like to do. People pay me money to do it. And when I go home I read about it, talk to others about it, and I practice, practice, practice. I think about how I can write better software, reduce the amount of bugs, test better designs, and improve my productivity. I think about programming all of the time.

And like Jacques, I'm not afraid to tell others that I'm a programmer. I think most people understand what that is by now. I write programs for computers. If I say "Systems Analyst," or "Solution Architect," they will probably look at me funny and ask what that means. In an interview... it will probably be passed over without a second thought. So I call myself a programmer.

And I call myself a programmer with a bit of pride. It isn't an easy profession and involves far more than typing in a bunch of things that make computers do stuff. Experienced employers will have realized this before sitting some one such as myself down in an interview. They want someone with enthusiasm for the craft, the experience building many different systems, and the ability to learn. There was a time when I would have accepted any programming job. However there comes a point where talking to yet another company who just wants to replace a cog in their machine becomes a waste of your time. It is hard to be good at this job and experience and ability has a cost associated with them.

So yes, I am a programmer. Thanks Jacques for writing this.

The point of Patrick's essay isn't "Programming is lame" or "you shouldn't be proud of your programming accomplishments." How did anyone take that away?

  > It isn't an easy profession and involves far more than typing in a bunch of things that make computers do stuff.
This is true. Nobody said that wasn't the case.

  > I'm not afraid to tell others that I'm a programmer. I 
  > think most people understand what that is by now. I write 
  > programs for computers. 
Look, I love writing code. I <3 proper testing. I take pride in my work and try to provide the best code I can possibly write.

That said, coding is what we do to achieve something. Maybe you're trying to make it easier for your support team to track tickets, or helping your client's customers save the most money.

I get that you're proud of your development skills, but at some point your software has to solve a business need, and you need to understand what the need is and how your software is solving it. All the unit tests and properly factored code won't mean anything if you don't. You'll write unnecessary features, or miss writing necessary ones.

Patrick's point as far as I understood it was that we all understand this but we're not billing ourselves that way. If I'm in an interview, or discussing my work with a non-technical associate, I emphasize my ability to understand business needs and write software to meet them. When I talk to technical folks, I emphasize that I unit- and integration-test all of my code and that I understand why DRY code is great.

  > The problem I had with Patrick's essay is how derogatory 
  > it is to what we do.
On the contrary, I think it celebrated what we do. Not the technical aspects -- squeezing performance out of underpowered machines or designing remarkably simple architectures -- but the final outcomes. This app saved us millions per year. These new dashboard reports helped us earn 20% than expected this quarter.

“Programmer” sounds like “anomalously high-cost peon who types some mumbo-jumbo into some other mumbo-jumbo.” If you call yourself a programmer, someone is already working on a way to get you fired.

That sounds derogatory to me. His opinion is that business types could care less about what you do. You're not a programmer but an exploitable resource. Since when is being a crafts-person and being proud of your work and what you do bad?

I get that you're proud of your development skills, but at some point your software has to solve a business need, and you need to understand what the need is and how your software is solving it.

I'm in the business of producing good software. How does calling myself a programmer have anything to do with what you just said?

It's a matter of perception. Patrick thinks people think programmers are clueless navel-gazing cogs who don't have a grip on reality. Of course nothing could be further from the truth -- a good programmer is probably more in touch with the needs of the business than the ignorant stakeholder who thinks programmers just type in a bunch of stuff. I think this perception is a disservice to both programmers and business people alike. I do not doubt that there are people in the world who perceive programmers in the way Patrick describes... but I wouldn't work for them for anything less than a big six-figure salary and very gracious vacation allowance. I think most people understand that programmers make software and software solves problems for businesses and consumers which makes money. Therefore programmers must be pretty important.

So yes, I still call myself a programmer. If I catch wind that the person interviewing me views me as a 'peon' I walk. If that's what they're looking for it's their loss. They can figure it out later I'm sure and might come back to me when their spending 80% of their time and budget fixing the errors their "peon" introduced into their software.

Good programmers are hard to find. I don't see anything wrong with calling myself a programmer.

  > Since when is being a crafts-person and being proud of 
  > your work and what you do bad?
Nobody said it was. Not the original article, not me, not anyone.

  > I'm in the business of producing good software.
I don't know, maybe you are.

Right now, I'm in the healthcare business. My main client is a medicare company and they want people to sign up for their plans and fill prescriptions, preferably for the cheaper generics that save them money but still provide therapy required.

I meet those goals by writing well-architected software with solid test coverage. I make my job easier on myself by making my deployment a single-click affair. That's part of being a good developer, but that's not what I'm paid for. I'm paid to meet business goals. We got this client by writing software that meets those goals better than their original vendor. If someone comes along who writes poorly-architected messes but that achieve those goals better my client will leave me for them. I will be disgusted as a programmer that this happened, but it only makes sense.

  > I don't see anything wrong with calling myself a programmer.
That's fine. Call yourself whatever you want. But -- and this is the entire point of Patrick's article! -- assuming that people understand the value of a good programmer is a mistake. Rather than dismissing folks who don't instantly comprehend your brilliance, maybe you might try explaining to them the value that you provide in terms they can understand.

I know that you're fighting the good fight, but I just don't have it in me to sell the concept that I'm going to produce software to solve someone's problems. I'm only interested in joining teams where the decision to write high-quality software was already made - and I provide my skill to people who know that's what they need.

If someone comes along who writes poorly-architected messes but that achieve those goals better my client will leave me for them. I will be disgusted as a programmer that this happened, but it only makes sense.

I understand what you're trying to say, but I disagree that people perceive "programmers" as highly-paid peons. If they did, why would you want to work for them? There are companies who are desperate for good programmers and recognize that good programmers are hard to come by. Negotiating with them is much less adversarial, I assure you.

I don't disagree with a lot of what you're saying. I think we can both agree that a good programmer understands their role in the business and should view their practice holistically as a part of a much bigger entity. However, I don't think that people universally see programmers as overly-paid gurus or what-have-you. Assuming they want skilled programmers to work for them, why would they look for replaceable cogs and peons?

The true cost of hiring those kinds of programmers will not be apparent until 5 years down the road when you're spending 80% of your budget and time fixing bugs and putting out fires from pissed off client who cannot believe you would ship them such a shoddy product.

Again.. maybe there are people in the world who still do not know what a programmer does or the value of hiring good programmers. I would argue that they're probably in the minority or hiring for a position that doesn't require a lot of skill. In that case perhaps Patrick is right -- but again, why would you want to work for them unless you're desperate to fill in your H1B requirements or you're straight out of school and have no experience. A good programmer can do a lot better in my experience.

Patrick's essay had nothing to do with titles. It was about describing what you do in terms of the benefit you provide to your customers/employers rather than in terms of the skills or tools you use to provide that benefit.

I could tell people I can program Excel interop in .NET, or I could tell them I saved my company dozens of hours a week by automating an administrative process. To non-programmers, only one of these descriptions sounds interesting. A programmer can hear "Excel interop in .NET" and infer automating administrative tasks. A business person, generally, cannot.

Patrick's essay was about being explicit about the value you provide, not about picking a fancier name for yourself.

I feel that is the wrong way to approach things. Your job as a programmer was to provide that deliverable as set out by your position. You programmed it and it went along. The outcome of that deliverable was the improvement but your job was to construct it.

I don't pretend that my past jobs were "automating IPTV interface interactions" or "enabling alternative business transaction venues"... I was programming what was needed. Its a white lie the industry has gotten comfortable with and I think we'd be better off if this path was never went down in the first place. People prettying up their titles have essentially "robbed" honest ones ("I'm a f*king programmer") from being treated in the same regard.

It is hard for those of us who know how to tinker to appreciate that there really are folks who don't tinker.

You assign them to pull the levers, and they pull the levers. If the machine they're running is manifestly inefficient, they don't notice, or they pretend not to notice.

(Or – if they're good – they adapt themselves, adopting a complex series of difficult physical and mental moves to compensate for the machine's brokenness. Sometimes those physical moves are such that, after four years on the job, they'll be in the hospital. But they do them anyway, because, hey, making the inefficient machine work is their job.)

If the machine next to theirs is broken in a way such that it messes up half of the work coming out of their machine, they just keep going -- hey, it's their job to run this machine, not that machine. If the machine they're running breaks down, they call for help and then sit there unmoving until help arrives. ("I didn't want to break anything.")

You tell them to RTFM, and they do, all of it, and then they come back to you: "I read the whole manual; now what do you want me to do?"

They may have even memorized the manual. It's not that these people aren't smart and eager to please. Indeed – and this is the thing I have trouble getting my head around – sometimes, within their area of expertise, they may know how to tinker like mad, they know the freaking serial numbers of every part of their machine and which ones can substitute for each other in an emergency. And yet, beyond their area, there's this strange paralysis. You hand them the duct tape and gesture encouragingly at a neighboring machine and... nothing happens.

If you give such a person a room full of miscellaneous broken things and ask them to fix everything they will proceed at a rate of (1 + epsilon) hour of progress per hour you spend telling them what to do. On the flip side, if you give them a room full of ten thousand widgets to finagle and they have a certification in Widget Finagling, those widgets will get finagled. They might even work overtime to please you. And when the widgets are done they'll go home, even if the rest of the factory is on fire, because there's nothing left for them to do.

When hiring someone to solve our problems we desperately need to know whether or not we're getting a hacker, or a technician. Both have their roles, but they can't substitute for each other.

This is true. I know someone who has bluntly me told me they don't want to think at their job.

> When hiring someone to solve our problems we desperately need to know whether or not we're getting a hacker, or a technician.

So you base this on whether someone calls themselves a programmer or not?

I think you're missing the point - saying "I'm a programmer" essentially means jack and squat to most people.

Saying what you did, and better, what that actually accomplished in real world terms isn't a lie at all, it's what people actually care about.

I agree with you completely. I'm just being pissy and saying "I wish things were different" and I really don't have a productive solution to the problem... My wish is that programmers would take pride in the title and call themselves programmers who were able to accomplish X and Y for company Z and not the other way around where they hide the programmer bit.

Do you think CNC operators give a damn whether most people know what a CNC operator does?

This "make people understand what exactly I do and how much value I provide and how precious I am" is yet another manifestation of insecurity of software developers.

No, unless they work or want to work directly with CNC operators and need to know what they're actually capable of instead of just what they're called.

This is exactly what you don't put out a 'I need a dozen programmers' ad - people aren't a fungible commodity. You do actually need to know how much value they can provide.

"Make people understand what exactly I do" is exactly the attitude I think Patrick is arguing against. That's why you don't call yourself a programmer or talk about what technologies you use. Because it doesn't matter to non-software companies. What matters is whether you can save the company money or increase their revenue.

Calling yourself a programmer is telling what you do. Describing how many hours of work you can save is telling how you can provide value.

When presented with a bunch of employees manually copying information from spreadsheet into a database, you can tell them, "I know Excel interop and SQL," or you can tell them, "I can make it so you never have to manually copy this information again." Only one of these statements is interesting to a non-programmer. The first implies the second to us, but not to a non-programmer, so you need to be explicit. You can't expect them to make the inference and present you with a spec for a spreadsheet-parsing, database-updating program.

The reason programmers have to learn this and not CNC operators is that the benefit of a CNC operator is much better understood in their sphere (manufacturing) than the benefit of a programmer is understood in their sphere (almost anywhere computers are used extensively). Most people who can benefit from a CNC operator know it and know how. Most people (outside of the software industry) who can benefit from a programmer don't know it and even if they did, wouldn't know how.

Programming is by no means the only field in which this applies though. It also applies in design, copy-writing, SEO, ergonomics, preventative medicine, and many other fields. Anywhere where the people who can benefit from a field's work don't understand the field's work, but do understand impact to their bottom line.

If you pitch a business with, "I increased productivity at another business by 10%," you'll have better results (at least this is the conjecture at hand) than if you pitch with, "I'm an ergonomics expert," even though the actual work being offered is the same. Either way, the business owners will probably never understand that ergonomics is more than adjusting desk height. But they don't, and shouldn't, need to. They just need to appreciate how it helps their bottom line and trust the experts to apply the expertise where it should be applied.

Trying to make people understand what you do is exactly the problem. Programmers naturally seem to want people to understand how computers work and what they can do. We want people to understand what code is, why it's important that it's written well, and so many other things that business owners simply shouldn't need to care about. That's why we tell people we're programmers, or that we know certain languages or frameworks. These things are only relevant to other programmers though. Business owners care about making money, so tell them how you can do that.

Yes, me too, I'm a programmer. That's how I think of myself, regardless of what infinitely varied tasks I may do. And me too, that's what I blurt out when people ask me what I do.

In more formal contexts, like resumes and job apps, I call myself a software developer, because that's a more encompassing description of what I do. Software development is not just programming, even if that's the most obvious and the most fun part.

My employers call me whatever they want to call me. That's been technical staff member, programmer, software engineer, etc.

I never voluntarily call myself a software engineer. I've never worked under the supervision of a PE who was legally responsible for my work, and I've never been on a track working toward my PE. Very few software developers work in that environment.

I don't mind the informalization of the term software engineer, but I don't use it because I've never, ever worked in an environment where programming or software development was practiced as an engineering discipline using national or international standards of practice or product. Software development where I've been, and where most people are, is much more an individual art than a community science. So I don't want to give the impression that what I'm doing is in any way a legal, formal engineering practice.

> I never voluntarily call myself a software engineer

I actually had my company change my official job title at one point in my career to "Software Developer". I have an undergraduate degree in engineering (partially because I wanted to rebel against my parent's wishes for me to do CS). Software cannot be engineered like a bridge. Structural engineering is very narrowly scoped. You have a design load, comprised of live loads like wind and moving cars and static loads from the weight of the structure itself. There are entire "cookbooks" of formulas used to compute the theoretical, accepted thickness of the support beams and bolts. There is standardized everything, from the project management terminology to the thread count on the bolts. After graduating, if you gain four years (in some states, less) of practical engineering experience, you can take the Professional Engineer (PE) exam. In some cases, to prove your experience, you need to submit three inches thick of paper calculations you have done while working. The PE exam is rigorous and graded on a curve. But once you pass, you get the pride and responsibility of having a seal that you can use to emboss blueprints. That says you take responsibility for the work. Software development is not engineering, and I have strong philosophical discussions with those programmers who insist on that term.

Software development is creative problem solving. You do not have much creativity in structural engineering.

> Software cannot be engineered like a bridge.

It can be, as in the world of formal proofs and languages like Ada which facilitate them. It just typically isn't, as such formal procedures are far more costly and slower than than just dealing with bugs as they happen. For critical software systems like say avionics where a failure case is extremely costly (in both money and casualties), there do exist certification programs and rigorous methods as you describe for structural engineering.

It could be argued that avionics behaves more as engineering than as programming. Then we have a self-fulfilling definition: if we define fields with rigorous procedures as engineering, and fields without as software development, then of course software development doesn't have formalized methodology.

You're also comparing the largest scope of structural engineering - a massive bridge - with the entire spectrum of software. Engineering does happen on a smaller informalized scale too, like a homeowner building a shed or a Boy Scout troop building a rope obstacle course. That's still engineering, applying skills in carpentry or knot-tying to build something.

The last point about in-formalisation of the discipline is not incidental. I think that it is sort of specific to the community that Hacker News hosts.

I am a programmer, but I am not a programmer.

The problem is, 'programming' as such is the end of a process. That process begins with talking to a customer about his or her idea/business problem, and asking questions and (basically) doing consulting to help the customer understand what his or her problem really is. Once that's clear, I write a proposal that outlines how I would address that problem, all in strictly high-level layman-understandable language - no mockups, no screenshots, no technical language, nothing. Then, once we agree on that, I contact a designer to help out with the design of the app, and to think about new and novels ways to make the interface as simple as possible. We show it to the customer, refine it, and get an agreement on all that stuff. And then, finally, three months since that first meeting, I can start with the programming.

So yes, I'm a programmer - but only if an academic is a writer, if an architect is someone who draws, and if a manager is someone who talks to people.

> The problem is, 'programming' as such is the end of a process.

In a lot of cases it's probably more accurate to say it's one part of the cycle. If programming really ends up being the end of the process, something might have gone wrong with the project.

Yeah ok ;-) The programming part itself is a whole different process, including a lot of communication with the customer. It is not really the end of the process in that sense - it's the last process in the big overarching process.

What I meant is just that after programming usually comes feedback, bug fixes, improvements, new features which need to be discussed, spec'd and developed and so on. In the sectors I've worked in (web and enterprise software), programming is part of an iterative process, so if the project is successful, it's not really the end of anything. It can be different in "heavier" sectors with projects that span over several years and that don't change much after the initial release.

>And then, finally, three months since that first meeting, I can start with the programming.

In my world (iOS), if it takes you three months to even start moving, you'll miss the market opportunities far too often. 3 months ago, iOS5 storyboarding and multitasking weren't even a concern and most developers were split between Xcode 3.x and 4.0!

And as a data point from a completely different industry, it can take me three months to get approval to fix a bug.

Apples, meet oranges.

Job security, job satisfaction, good pay. Pick any two.

This statement doesn't make much sense when you think about it. It seems to be a lazy riff off of:

"Fast, cheap, quality: Pick any two"

Each of those characteristics are in competition with each other. Doing something fast often hurts quality and/or cheapness. Doing something cheaply may take longer and may harm quality.

Job security vs. job satisfaction don't really compete with each other. In fact, being more satisfied (i.e. happy) at your job may lead to better security indirectly, as a happy worker is a more productive, engaged, and charismatic worker.

Perhaps JMJ is trying to appeal to the commonly-held notion that fulfilling, satisfying jobs are ones that don't pay well - teaching, research, social work, etc. OK, it applies to certain sectors. But not across all sectors. A failure to recognize the inherent structural differences and opportunities between job fields (and public vs. private) hurts whatever rhetorical argument he's trying to make here.

I've heard this sentiment phrased much better:

"There are three things that mostly determine how well your life goes: what you're doing, who you're with, and where you are. If you can get two of the three right, you're ahead of 90% of the human race."

Sometimes there are tradeoffs between the three, sometimes not, but it's really, really hard to get all three to line up together.

Yes, and I'm sure that's what Jacques meant. Getting each of those qualities on their own can be difficult, but they are not in direct competition with each other. Nitpicky, maybe, but it's an important nuance.

In the limited context of tech jobs and entrepreneur, I don't think it's quite right to tell people that it's not possible to achieve all three. And it may even be counter-productive.

The biggest quarrel I have with this whole debacle is how it all started out. A group of wise asses decided they should fancy their title up and now everyone has to "to stay relevant".

The fact is I AM a Software Engineer. I have a degree in Applied Science and I have my Iron Ring. I am registered with my provincial Professional Body. Saying that, I am not just a "Programmer" (I do not mean to sound derogatory) but there is a difference in the fields that I think is getting blurred.

I turned down many jobs that wanted "programmers" because I am an "engineer" and don't want to fall behind in my primary field to take a job that is loosely related. I code at home in my own time releasing small projects only recently digging into bigger ventures that are potentially able to turn profit but that's beside the point. Where I am now is an engineer's job. I do programming yes, but my job requires more than an understanding of computer architecture and design pattern competency to succeed.

I feel like I'm sounding like an ass. I am much more humble I swear! The point is that Software Engg != Programmer we need to stop fooling ourselves and allow the segregation to occur so that programmers are properly recognized and respected for their work!

As a computer engineer, with an iron ring and a bachelor's of applied science, I feel your pain. In Canada, there seems to be some respect given to the title, although it seems to be waning. In the UK, an engineer is someone who fixes your car or appliances. In the USA, an engineer is someone who writes PHP.

Outside software, I'd say "engineers" are pretty well respected in the U.S., but I don't think it actually has any strong substantive connotation. An "engineering" job can range from some sort of strong meaning of the term, to something closer to "technician", which maybe is the non-computing analog of "programmer". There are plenty of, say, aerospace engineers, especially at the lower seniority levels, whose job mainly involves "running the numbers" in a fairly straightforward way, and not a lot of independent decision-making or problem-solving.

(Some places do distinguish "engineer" and "technician", but I don't think it's a strong boundary, and where it does exist, has more to do with formal credentials and pay grades than the actual job contents.)

Where I'm from the real difference between Engineer and Technician is the amount of responsibility that is placed upon the professional's shoulders. I have lots of technician friends who complain about the work they do being the same as engineers but aren't paid in the same grade as we are.

I'm not sure whether or not I agree with them in this case but the reality that I keep seeing is the idea of "responsibility". The work that the technician does is passed through the engineer who puts his approval/stamp/whatever on it and puts it through production.

If something a technician did came through my desk and I approved it only to have it cost my client massive financial loss for a preventable reason it is MY ass that is on the line and not the technician. I could be a technician and not have that on me but that wasn't my decision and if an employer wants to retain competent engineers they need to pay them at an appropriate grade so that they're prepared to take that responsibility.

EDIT: I guess another thing is the academics that each goes through. Technicians mostly go through courses that teach reconstruction and following the spec while engineers are given a broad problem and time to solve it.

I'm not saying technicians are incapable of design, I'm just saying the schools my friends went through didn't teach it so it isn't really expected of them.

Ah yes, that's an institutional difference in how engineering sign-off works. In the U.S., you do usually need engineers with P.E. certifications to sign off on a project, and in small firms it works like you describe. But in large corporations, there are typically very few people who do official sign-offs, often only the VP of Engineering or head of a project, who signs the final designs, and anything legally deposited with a government. And they usually don't do it purely on their own professional judgment, but only after consultation with the legal department.

As a result, very few engineers actually have jobs with sign-off authority/responsibility. Even if you do have a P.E. certification, unless you're very senior you'll probably never be officially signing off on anything as a regular employee. Below the top levels, almost all engineering jobs are structured as someone doing internal technical work for the corporation that gets passed upwards for eventual sign-off. That's part of what makes the engineering/technician boundary fuzzy, because nearly everyone is a technician by the classification you describe, in the sense of someone who doesn't independently sign off on engineering work (I do agree that engineering involving more design work is a common differentiator, though).

In the US, Professional Engineers are licensed through the state and are legally responsible for their work. If you engineer a bridge and it falls down because of a design problem, you are the one at fault.

Until software engineers become legally responsible for crashes/data loss/etc. of their software and can be sued out of existence or go to prison because negligence, they will not demand the same respect that other engineers do.

Apparently Texas, like Canada, considers software engineering a proper discipline of engineering, subject to the same regulations as other engineering disciplines: http://sce.uhcl.edu/helm/SWEBOK_IEEE/papers/10%20reprint%205...

Frankly, I dispute the existence of a "Software Engineer."

The UK and parts of Canada may recognize and regulate people with this title, but I don't believe that the same rigor _can_ be applied to building software.

You would have to work with formally verified (and I mean that in the mathematical sense) hardware and software all the way up and down the stack (that would include the language and compiler you utilize). You would then have to formally verify your own software on the stack you are deploying to. Only then would you be approaching the rigor that other Engineering professions are held to.

I've worked on avionics flight management systems. We had reams of system requirements, multi-person code reviews for every line of code in the product, formal verification runs, system integration testing, field testing... The compilers used were qualified for our use. All libraries used were qualified. All operating system components used in the product were qualified. Internal tools that automated any part of the process were qualified.

I'm not sure what your criteria is for "mathematical" verification, but I see this sort of work as software engineering.

The aerospace and medical fields have done quite a bit to increase the rigor in building software, however there doesn't seem to be any push from them to codify their processes and establish some sort of push for the industry as a whole. The establishment of a true Software Engineering discipline would require some consensus on the use of formal methods in specification design, and then program verification.

The other hurdle is that you need the same rigor from your hardware designers. Just as structural engineers must rely on the rigor of steel manufacturers, we are held hostage by hardware manufacturers. Frankly the entire industry needs a wake up call.

As for formal verification, it is the mathematical proof (in the pure sense) that a program behaves exactly as speced -- the specification must also be formally verified for consistency. Currently this is only possible on relatively small programs, with the largest being several compiler back-ends being verified.

Here's a paper on what it took to formally verify the seL4 micro-kernel: http://www.sigops.org/sosp/sosp09/papers/klein-sosp09.pdf

Codify their processes?


On the avionics software I worked on, we (another group of people) designed and manufactured the hardware. I'm not as familiar with the process there, but I have no reason to believe that it wasn't done with similar rigor. [See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DO-254]

I understand mathematical proof, but I wasn't sure that was what you meant. I did not realize that physical engineering projects are mathematically proven to that extent?

I'm sorry, I wasn't very precise in my language, I meant the industries working together to generate a more generic process that isn't tied to a specific industry. This would be done with the intention of building a Professional Software Engineer program.

Anything relying on the physical world obviously cannot be mathematically verified, however the mathematical rigor is still there in the modelling and testing.

Ah, I think I follow then. Mathematical proof of very large software systems may presently be impractical; the verification procedures currently in place for avionics systems are pretty daunting as they stand.

I'm not sure what we would gain from an overall software engineering professional qualification. While I am quick to point to avionics development as (in my opinion) being true software engineering, I also acknowledge that a great deal of software is not built using any methods even remotely as rigorous. But then, it also probably doesn't need to be.

You put a lot more rigor into building a house for people than you do a house for dogs, and you put a lot more rigor into building a skyscraper office building than you do a house. And rightly so. Each needs to withstand different levels of pressure. I see no reason to apply rigorous engineering processes to iPhone games; it would be a waste of time and resources.

As it is, the industries that require rigorous software development have produced their own standards. I suppose if you could ascertain the similarities across industries and codify that into general software engineering practices, that could be a good thing, but you'd probably still need industry-specific regulations to make sure nothing was missed.

I dunno. Maybe if more software needed extensive rigor it would be more obvious what needs to be done across industries.

There are tons of industries that should require it. The issue is that we focus in on the software that can directly kill us, rather than all the software that can indirectly do it. We instantly reason that all software we use to control things like cars or airplanes should be highly controlled, but what about financial software, phone systems, medical records software?

One of the sloppiest and haphazard programmers I ever worked with is now writing software for non-critical medical monitoring devices (external monitors like O2 sensors, and blood pressure monitors) and it scares the living daylights out of me. When I'm in a hospital room I look around to see if his company's hardware is in use. It might not kill me, but it could contribute to that end.

I'll come full circle around to my initial assertion that I don't know if we can even get to the point of a true Professional Software Engineer. Many of the tasks we deal with are highly abstract. How do we define an acceptable failure rate for a TCP stack? And even if we do, how do we take that into account for a monitoring application? There are many hard questions we have to tackle prior to our industry being taken seriously as a true engineering discipline.

What troubles me is that very few of the leaders in the software community even care about these questions.

I guess I lied in part... I'm a Systems Engineer with a Software specialization. My work is about the integration of software components into a much larger architecture of devices... in my case I keep the internet backbone alive for my province that includes alarm monitoring, fault detection/correction and upkeep to systems for prevention. AI, formal methods and other broad categories are extremely relevant in my industry and I personally believe only a fool would discredit this as an Engineer's job.

You're an Engineer who writes software, nothing wrong with that. Lots of Chemical and Electrical Engineers write software, I'm still not going to call them Software Engineers.

This isn't about discrediting anyone's life work. The fact is if you're developing software that gets deployed on anything but purpose-built hardware you're already not engaging in proper engineering practices. It would be like building a bridge with materials whose properties you didn't know.

> I don't believe that the same rigor _can_ be applied to building software.

Check out aerospace software development processes.

edit: also embedded automotive software

There was an article posted (I believe here) a while back about aerospace software development. They talked about the processes used to develop the software and it was definitely in line with engineering rigor. However, it went on to say the people doing the work were not professional engineers. So, at least in some countries, you still could not call it software engineering.

I'd guess that a professional engineer is still required to sign off on the software before a plane gets certification. The same happens when non-licensed-engineers work on other engineering projects. Perhaps the software part does have less engineers working on it percentage wise.

Although there is no mentioning of any references, I have a clue that it is a response to "Don't call yourself a programmer" (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3170766)

I think that if jacquesm was living in Japan like patio11 (I also live in Japan), he wouldn't call himself a programmer either. Because a programmer in Japan is someone that takes a spec or a task, written by an engineer, and "translate" it into code. A programmer doesn't solve any problem, he implements another person solution, and that's it.

But at the end of the day it's not strictly about semantics, I think it's also about how you understand you work. When I don't introduce myself as an entrepreneur, I always introduce myself as a software engineer. Not out of elitism or anything like that, but because I think it carries more the fact that I am here to solve problems, and that programming is just one possible mean to this end.

I wonder what those specs written by engineers look like. How much details do they provide? Is the architecture of the project already specified? Algorithms and data structures already provided? If that's the case then wouldn't it be quicker for those engineers to directly type their specs in a high-level language? If that's not the case I think there are still a lot of problems for the programmer to solve.

Actually, my last sentence is incorrect: my role is not to "solve problems" but to "create value", the latter being a superset of the former.

oh its most definitely a response to that article, there's no doubt in my mind.

Heh, yeah I have no doubt this is a response to that.

I would argue that this semantic debate over the meaning of "programmer" is getting a tad tired. The author description would be more aptly described, in my opinion, as an entrepreneur.

Conflict management, and the other business-focused tasks he mention are completely separate from the programming side in the corporate world. I worked at a company where the software developers spent 90% of their time writing code based on tasks, and nearly no time on these other facets described in the article.

Suffice to say, I think that more focus should be spent on what people are doing, and not what they're calling it. Which is sort of what the author was saying, in the end.

Patrick's essay covered a lot of ground. It expanded on its title by explaining what companies value. The essay as a whole did not seem focused on job titles. The essay title did focus on job titles.

I see a wonderfully self-referential thing happening when people focus on the title of the essay. Maybe people do focus more on titles than they should -- both essay titles and job titles. Maybe job titles are as important as essay titles and email subject lines.

Patrick's essay was adaptibly engineered. If titles are what get through to people, the essay title will convey what's imprtant. Otherwise, the essay body will convey what's important.

What this particular farcical drama boils down to is the tension between the creative and the business. It is identical in spirit to the musician's dilemma.

Usually it comes out to something like this, "Do we take pleasure in our art and pursue the art, or do we take pleasure in selling our art in pursuing that?"

It's painfully obvious that good businesses pay people to create a positive value proposition for them. Therefore, if you are running your career like a business, you need to be seeking to maximize your value proposition. Part of that is passing yourself off as a maximal value creator. That is one half of the essence of patio11's point.

A lot of the artists I've dealt with are content to seek their art and to work in badly paid jobs to maximize their pursuit of their art. As someone who can program computers, we can draw value from our art. We do not need to hack at night and work as a barista during the day. That is the other half of the essence of patio11's point.

No one has to take patio11's advice, and their priorities may not align with his priorities.

But if you're maximizing wealth creation through being a programmer, you need to stop 'being a programmer/hacker/ninja/rock star/operator' and start 'being a person who creates wealth for other people via technology'.

I've been re-reading the Gervais Principle series[0] recently, so I can't help but to construe both the original essay[1] and this response in terms of Sociopath, Clueless and Loser dynamics.

The original essay could also be called "A Loser's Guide To Careers" -- it's a realistic assessment of the options and opportunities offered to most engineers. It recognizes that most readers will be, in the grand scheme of things, on the short end of the stick and will have relatively little to bargain with. Accordingly, it dispenses cold, rational advice for how to best bargain with that limited leverage.

Both the Sociopath and the Loser are realists, it's only that the Loser has little meaningful leverage; he accepts this and so makes the best time-money bargain he can negotiate.

The Clueless, however, is clueless -- he would like to believe he is making a difference by keeping his head down, working hard and following the rules; instead, he is setup to be a mediocre middle manager at best, and a scapegoat at worst. And this essay could best be called "A Clueless Defense." That is not meant to slight any of Jacques technical achievements or prowess. Instead, I apply the term "clueless" here to mean that Jacques is being hopelessly naive. This essay is essentially a celebration of Jacques refusal to accept the situation in which he and other engineers find themselves: a world where those who hold the largest stakes (in any venture we choose to participate in) generally have no clue what value we provide and are incented to reduce our stakes.

(Yes, there are exceptions, even successful ones, and I think I work at one of those. But I don't blindly believe it, and I wouldn't bet my life or my family's future on it.)

I could write a lot more about my feelings on "I am a programmer,": I don't like it. I've already said that I find it naive and I don't want to cause unnecessary offense. Still, I commend Jacques for writing it at all and there's no reason to alienate him in disagreement, because it's an honest expression of his feelings. But I do want to say that, as a worldview, the idea of it being useful for understanding the trajectory of your career... well, I'm reminded of a line from the Futurama episode "Love and Rocket":

"Oh I would dearly love to believe that were true. So I do."

(And also -- the original essay has nothing to do with job titles.)

[0] http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-o... [1] http://www.kalzumeus.com/2011/10/28/dont-call-yourself-a-pro...

Responding to "The Gervais Principle":

Categorizing everyone who works in the modern economy as either a "sociopath," "clueless," or a "loser" is utterly ridiculous and deeply offensive.

Moreover, "The Office" is not a basis for drawing general conclusions about the working world.

This very rarely happens, but I'm not willing to finish reading an article that spouts this kind of hogwash.

I understand your initial reaction, but you obviously haven't read enough of this massive five-part essay to have an informed opinion. It elaborates a theory of power politics which, in my experience, has immense explanatory power.

The terms "sociopath," "clueless," or "loser" are selected for their efficiency, and are not value judgments.

Have you read it? It would clearly appear you have not. And if not, you shouldn't be judging it, if you don't even understand (or address) the motivations behind those choices.

I'm not really convinced that this is a "Clueless Defense". That would be glorifying the job, like calling it software engineering. To the contrary, this essay seems to be quite self-aware of the "Loser" status, and saying -- hey guys, let's recognize what we are, and not delude ourselves into thinking we're something more.

Not saying I necessarily agree with this, but merely commenting on the interesting parellels. (I'm almost finished with the Gervais Principle series now, and it's fascinating.)

Excellent post all in all, but the part I consider the most important is:

Job security, job satisfaction, good pay. Pick any two.

I've been keenly aware of that for a while now. For someone like me, someone who chooses the first two, it stings a lot until you come to terms with it and make it your conscious choice. It all has to do with one's priorities and no combination is bad in itself. You just need to be aware of these things or it might be a source of unhappiness for you.

Jacques mentioned in the article that someone doing COBOL gets paid megabucks, i did a very quick search on UK job sites for contractors and they seem to make the same day rate as PHP developers. Is it different elsewhere? Is it just in permanent jobs that it commands more money? Anyone know where and why COBOL gets the big bucks?

Personally, I think it's a myth. I did a lot of y2k work in cobol in '98-'99. It has been on my resume ever since then, but I've not had one recruiter call me up asking about my cobol skills, just my more recent java and db skills.

I know a guy (UK) who was able to retire after consulting for COBOL y2k compliance. I think big bucks were floating around back then at least, not sure about the current situation.

I am a experienced programmer, too. No "software architect" or another label can convert the stupid into brilliant. In most cases is related to recognition, power, and pay, so may be that's the reason of accepting such labels as "normal" (I have no problem with others telling me X, Y or Z, although I find it non-sense as well).

engineer, architect ... I wanna be a software astronaut when I grow up.

Are you referencing Joel Spolsky's article on software astronauts?


ah, no, thanks!

I don't think you are (a programmer).

From the article:

"Programmers are guys and girls that can take real-world problems, that can analyze those problems and that use that analysis to come up with a way to improve the world, usually in an incremental but sometimes in a revolutionary manner by solving those problems (hopefully) once and for all."

You are a systems analyst. The difference (to me at least) is that a programmer solves the presented problem by writing a program, a systems analyst solves the problem by tuning or refactoring the system. Sometimes all that takes is programming, but sometimes it takes more than that, a new data base schema, a different partitioning of roles of machines participating in the solution, user education, or even getting the rules of the game changed.

Given all that, I'd still rather be called a programmer. Anything else sounds like I'm showing off.

I just think the debate about identifying oneself "as", like pointed by other comments, is specific to a cultural context. In India specifically "programming" is as much about sector of work like "Information Technology" as it would be individuals profession. So most of the time "programmer" or "software engineer" inter-changeably explains the where one works for someone outside the profession. In case the person shows further interest, one could go further into what exactly is the span of work. So unlike Patrick's essay tries to convey, "programmer" per se is not a restrictive definition.

The title makes it sound as if the author is in complete disagreement with Patrick's essay (and perhaps he feels that he is) but it's not how I see it.

Both articles are about the way you present yourself, not really about the "programmer" label. Sure, your label is part of what do for a living, but the important point brought up by both articles is that you have to recognize what your value is in the workplace and use that as your selling point in order to achieve job satisfaction and/or recognition (that's the way I understood them anyway).

I am going to change my title to janitorial engineer.

From time to time I go by software mechanic since I spend more time fixing existing software than writing new software.

If I may suggest... Office space cleanitude manager

I'd like to go plumb some code now.

I'm a software developer... who cares, really... to outsiders we are weird kind of folks no matter what

haha true....When I talk to women at Bars...I am an iPhone/iPad Artist....They dont realize that that involves tweaking LLVM flags and debugging segmentation faults haha!

I agree "Programmer" is a sufficient job title, but my favourite "alternate" title I've seen anyone use is "Technical Enabler". It says "I use technology to solve problems and create value", which I think is very apt most of the time. You might be programming or you might simply be sharing/applying knowledge about computers, software, the web etc. that most people don't have. At least that's what I feel it's like most days.

Honestly, who besides programmers even know the difference between software engineers and programmers?

I personally don't really think there is a difference. They are essentially the same thing. I'm both and I don't really see a case where I'd call myself one and not the other.

So who is making the distinction? Us (engineers) or other people?

If you really want to make the assertion that non-engineers are making the distinction between programmers and software engineers, who do you think told them what the difference was?

The problem I have with "software engineering" is that it's not real engineering. Sure you might do thinking to create proper requirements, design, build a prototype, build the real thing and iterate, use agile or whatever.

But comparing programming to actual, real-world engineering is a different kettle of fish. Engineers make things with actual physical requirements - if they're not met, people will die. You're not going to be doing proper engineering unless you can sue the engineers for the wholes in their software that caused people to lose money from their bank. Sure it works and may well solve a problem, but it's not engineered.

Real software engineering is using formal methods to do your utmost to prove that your stuff actually will work (Intel does that for some of their chip development) or make 5 different control systems for your rocket and have them vote on the correct course to add extra backup to prevent fuckups (NASA did this for the Apollo iirc - the EU Ariane didn't, so they had a rocket crash at one point).

Until that happens, you're just going to be developing sandcastles - you're going to have buggy software that will break at some point - because software development is so fast that it's not worth the effort to engineer from the get-go.

In other words, coding is coding - you can have good coding that uses best practices - but if you call it engineering you're deluding yourself in most cases.


Bad code won't kill people? I think any longtime reader of HN can think of a few real-life stories that would contradict this.

I studied computer engineering and yes, I remember those of us more on the hardware side thinking the ones on the "soft" side of the engineering were the lazy ones. Having been more involved in programming projects since then, I've seen the great value in being able to "engineer" software that meets highly specific specs and anticipates future needs, upgrades, and maintenance. Neither of those are necessarily related to good programming, and the failure to achieve both in mission-critical software will lead to deaths

* and as far as I can tell, "real" engineers do not get individually sued for physical failures, unless there's a rare instance in which an individual engineer can be proven to be malicious or grossly negligent.

I was thinking more of the web stuff that people do, so may be overstating my case. There are cases where you really need to make things safe - NASA's Apollo rockets and medical equipment to name a few. Also, when I talk about suing engineers I meant suing a big company such as Microsoft for the glaring security problems in earlier versions of Windows. Some Windows machines would be hacked within minutes of connecting them to the internet - in my mind that's simply negligence on the part of the developers - them being liable for creating an insecure product would force them to develop a properly secure solution - in other words to actually engineer it properly.

Where you have a hardware-centric approach, I'd assume that the whole system, software included has been pretty well tested and engineered to a great deal.

But banking software and I postulate most software that hacker news contributors write is probably going to be inherently flaky in some respect. The main fault for this is that writing software is so quick and easy compared to creating something physical that will last.

It's due to the push to get something to market and the "easy" nature of software development that leaves true engineering discipline by the wayside.

Yes, you can be in a situation (especially when people's lives depend on it directly such as medical equipment) when you are properly engineering a solution, but I still stand by my premise that most software development is not software engineering - you're just making sandcastles.

> Some Windows machines would be hacked within minutes of connecting them to the internet - in my mind that's simply negligence on the part of the developers - them being liable for creating an insecure product would force them to develop a properly secure solution - in other words to actually engineer it properly.

If software developers were actually engineers, or at least some of them were and were required to sign off, they would actually have authority to influence decisions that had huge impact on this situation - deprioritizing of security, bad project management, etc, not originating from the development side of the organization.

It agrees with my view that programming and mathematics are no different. I build models with my toolkit. End of story.

There's an inverse snobbery in effect here to an extent. If you've made it / made a name for yourself you can call yourself a programmer.

I don't know know whether it was the recently departed dmr or ken, but one of them answered 'programmer' when asked what he put as a profession on his landing/visa/immigration card.

That isn't because they were so big that they could say programmer, it is because that is what it used to be called before self-promotion inflated all job titles to the point of hyperbole.

as long as you are calling other peoples modules you're not yet programming

How about while you're not calling other peoples' modules, you're not programming effectively?

Why am I supposed to waste my time rewriting code available in the STL, or better, why is it held against me that I don't waste my time on such?

As a ground rule, as long as you are calling other peoples modules you're not yet programming, but that doesn't mean that what you do can't be meaningful or useful.

Oh, I see. Do I also have to code my own compiler before I start rewriting glibc?

-- ...but the fact of the matter is that I'm a programmer. It's what I do best and it is the job title that I associate with most

and then

-- What you call yourself or what other people call you is utterly irrelevant.

I am utterly confused and no better at my job.

I don't know about this one. I have a degree in comp sci and a master in software Eng. I've worked too hard in my life to be treated as a janitor. Why shoudnt we get the respect other engineers get?

"Glorified translator?"

Now I feel like a Geico caveman.

"My main occupations are being owner/operator of ww.com"

This guy is not a programmer. He is a business owner that can program. He can call himself a trashman and not loose a dime.

Everyone is a business owner. If you sell 40 hours of your time per week to "Major Corporation X," you are still running a business.

With that, I don't see many businesses marketing themselves with titles. You don't see "Google - Search engine engineers", you see "Google". The former would be pretty foolish marketing in my opinion. As such, I refuse to use titles at all.

I am an information Manipulator.

Here is something constructive to take away from Patrick's essay.

If you work in a bureaucracy dont whine about code quality ,better testing etc coz guess what ...No one really gives a shit!

If you really want to do good work do where its actually going to matter.WORK ON OPEN SOURCE PROJECTS.

When you are at work.Keep in mind that the only thing the management cares about is increasing profits and cutting costs.So go ahead and make them the ugly PHP5 form that they want.It will take you very less time anyways.Spend the rest of the time working on open source projects.This is a complete win-win strategy.

Yes years later when your companies stock value is in single digits ,some people in upper management will maybe understand the value of good source control,good testing procedures etc.But guess what they are not going to give much of a shit even then.All they will care about even then is (Repeat After Me)"Increasing profit and reducing costs".

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