The 4 to 4 ratio of professionalism


On being a professional

Currently dealing with some software types who, god bless their wooly socks, are less than enthusiastic about dealing with all this ‘paperwork’ and ‘process’, which got me to thinking about the nature of professionalism.

While the approach of ‘Bürokratie über alles’ doesn’t sit well with me I confess, on the other side of coin I see the girls just wanna have fun mentality of many software developers as symptomatic of a lack of professionalism amongst the programming class. Professionals in my book intuitively understand that the ‘job’ entails three parts the preparing, the doing and the cleaning up, in a stoichiometric ratio of 4:2:4. That’s right, any job worth doing is a basic mix of two parts fun to eight part diligence, and that’s true if you’re a carpenter or a heart surgeon.

Unfortunately the fields of computer science seems to attract what I can only call man children, those folk who like Peter Pan want to fly around never land and never grow up, which is OK if you’re coding Java beans for a funky hipster website, not so great if you’re writing an embedded program for a pacemaker, and so in response we have seem to have process*.

Now as a wise man once remarked, process really says you don’t trust your people so I draw the logical conclusion that the continuing process obsession of the software community simply reflects an endemic lack of trust, due to the aforementioned lack professionalism, in that field. In contrast I trust my heart surgeon (or my master carpenter) because she is an avowed, experienced and skillful professional not because she’s CMMI level 4 certified.

*I guess that’s also why we have the systems engineer. 🙂

6 responses to The 4 to 4 ratio of professionalism


    Matthew: Actually, your heart surgeon is board certified, has at least two academic degrees, and has passed other tests of professionalism. And, when you are on the table for surgery, you can bet there are many processes — formal, documented, and audited — ongoing, from the anesthesiologist to the recovery.

    On the other hand, I agree that you do not want the emergent and self-organizing team work of an agile software team as the model for heart surgery. As you say, when there’s not a lot at stake, you can afford to be more relaxed about it.

    Stoichiometric: a find word, indeed.


      Matthew Squair 14/06/2014 at 12:14 pm

      I had in mind the concept of a ‘vocational calling’, that is the work that you do in large part defines who you are and conversely your standing in society rises or falls by how well you discharge that responsibility. perhaps I do put greater faith in that than the bureaucratic prescription of process when it comes to the exercising of personal expertise and diligence… I definitely do see board certification and so on as tests of that secular virtue, you can certainly trace such test all the way back to the Inns of Court of medieval times.



    I must admit that this article inspires in me mixed feelings.

    On one side there are unprofessional individuals in every type of activity. I do not believe software engineering has a particular bias in this sense. Secondly, a very professional person can behave not professionally depending on the situation. Professionalism is not a permanent characteristic of a person and it can change over time, situation, project or simply humor and/or social and psycological biases. Thirdly, proferssionalism is not antagonist of fun, but excesive or, better said, unjustified burocracy can be indeed. And, finally, professionalism is an attitude that has to be driven as an important characterist in a project.

    On the other side, I agree that the certifications like CMMI or ISO9000, just to cite a couple, are no warranty of professionalism. But still they are formally better advice than somebody saying that this surgeon or that carpenter is skillful and serious.

    The bottom line here is trust is not the right tool to assert professionalism of a person in a situation. What are the chances of a person not been professional in given conditions? What is the risk of not being professional…? And there we go, assert a critical uncertainty on a complex system as a person (software engineer or surgeon)

    Gotchafr from Paris.


      Matthew Squair 14/06/2014 at 12:33 pm

      I think that if we look at it from a Marxist perspective the issue resolves itself into knowledge workers, emphasis on the word workers, on the one hand and the corporate owners of production on the other. So I believe that the persistent lack of emergence of a profession in a similar vein to that of doctors, lawyers and engineers reflects the owners of productions intent to maintain their control over the means of production.

      When I’ve worked in a large commercial organisation I’ve always found that there was a very uneasy relationship between the corporate powers that be and your right to exercise professional judgement. General Managers don’t like professionals saying ‘no’, they much prefer those who have no professional voice and who keep those annoying contrary opinions to themselves. This as I see it explains much of the current situation.



    NTSB is now clearly getting to communicate on automation as a menace to safety… Professionalism seems to be a subject too… but awkwardly, automation seems to have a negative influence on it…

    Chis Hart has made this statement in the NBAA meeting the day after the CEO of Total lost his life when a business jet rolled over a snow plough driven by a drunk person (at least according to Russian authorities)

    “how do we design these systems so that they work to enhance safety without detracting from professionalism?”


    Two pennies for your thoughts Mr. Squair…


      Matthew Squair 25/10/2014 at 4:35 pm

      This has been a problem from the earliest days of automation and behind it is an agenda that it would all be better if we got rid of those nasty humans with their tendency to err and who demand a pay check. Taken to it’s logical extreme you end up with automation as prosthesis, divorcing the operator from the system they’re trying to control. Behind that is a world view that the system you’re designing is a hard one and that pilots (or operators) essentially are a painful externality, most cog engineers tend to subscribe to that viewpoint IMO.

      I don’t actually think this is a tenable philosophy for safety critical systems like aviation because bluntly put we don’t have simple accidents anymore, all the basic foobars like flying into the ground, colliding with another aircraft or over-speeding in the coffin corner have been dealt with and the systems are there to preclude them, they work, most of the time. But what remains are the gotcha events the multiple failures, or environmental conditions that are right outside the design basis for the aircraft. By definition they haven’t been considered by the designers so the only backstop is the poor old sweaty palmed human. When an accident like AF447 occurs we tend to fixate on what the pilots did wrong, rather than considering that they were dealing with a situation in which the automation had given up!

      Perhaps instead we ought to think about how to automate professionalism? We could start with design automation to actually act more like a member of the crew…