Friday, May 13, 2005

The Pretension of Profession

Another cautionary entry, but not entirely about IT. Infoworld's Chad Dickerson again writes a good one in his May 9, 2005 column. He's talking about how people are freaking out because of the heavy loss in interest students are showing in the computer science disciplines in college. But he makes a great point about it at the end, saying that the lack of a computer science degree doesn't mean you can't be successful in the IT world.

This is too true. We, and not just IT workers, but everyone, can easily succumb to the ego trap of assuming our job is important and special. We do this because we're humans and we want to feel important and special, even if that means treating others like rat piss. Don't lie, we've all done it at one time or another, even if we weren't intending to hurt or look down on someone else. And one of the more obvious ways we do it is by asking the innocent-sounding question, "Where did you go to school?"

How do you respond to the answer to that question? If the person says they went to the same school you did, you think, "Oh, this person is OK, they're like me," and much feigned camaraderie and back slapping ensues. If they mention some prestigious school, perhaps the response is one of jealousy, or respect, or of feeling intimidated. If they reveal a less prodigious institution or perhaps the fact that they didn't go to school, well, now you got 'em, don't you?

I know, not everyone falls to such base behavior. But Dickerson's article reminded me of the pretension we can all take with our professions, our degrees, and other nonsense. Sometimes it's good to stop and remember that we're all just little pieces of excrement in the universe. It's not right to discount others based on titles. Don't assume that just because someone didn't study computer science they can't do computing (conversely, don't assume that someone that studied computer science is always a good developer).

Here's a little secret: anyone can be a programmer.

All it takes to be a decent programmer is the capacity for logic, basic mathematical ability, and the ability to communicate. When I was at EDS, one of the things I was impressed by was that this company, known for being a huge computer firm, hired people from all walks of life. I worked with English and geography majors that ended up being good, hard-working, competent developers. It was more about a sense of professionalism than simply having been brought up in a computing-related academic discipline. EDS says that this was all part of the plan to build diversity in the company, but that computer novices would take lower salaries probably wasn't lost on management (sort of like how cruise lines brag, "We have an international staff" when the reality is that they have to because only people from third-world countries would toil on those ships for a pittance).

I think one of the nicest things I ever said was when a lady and her son were talking to me about schools. He was a good kid but struggled a bit academically, and was going to go to a junior college. She asked me, "Is it really that big of a difference, to go to a big name school?" I could sense that she'd probably been chatting with "friends" and when the hens all started clucking about the schools their kids were going to after graduation, she got to see the undersides of their shoe soles.

The truth of course, is that despite my diatribe here against pretentiousness, going to a big name school does make a difference in that first job hunt. Not because the big name school was necessarily better, but because people are pompous, and because we all have to live by rules we didn't write. But I told her a different truth, saying, "An education is what you make of it. It doesn't matter where you go. It's about how hard you work and what you want to learn." And that is the truth, because I went to a fairly respectable university, but I know guys that went to JCs and got, in some cases, better instruction than I did.

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