Why "programmer" is not in my job title

There are two activities which, when taken in combination, have occupied the vast majority of my working hours for the past 20 years: writing computer programs and writing...well, just writing.

During my college years I completed my degree with a double-major: Computer Science and English. (My English degree has a writing concentration; I took the minimum requirement of literature courses to satisfy the major. Please do not ask me to recite Tennyson or interpret Shakespeare.)

Whenever somebody asks me what I do for a living, I do not answer with "I'm a computer programmer", even though that is one of the main activities that justifies my paycheck. For me, "computer programmer" conjures up an image of a sun-deprived subterranean creature -- a go-between who accepts requests from the computer ignorants and performs the necessary incantations over a computer keyboard to make it happen. In "the old days" it really was that mystical. The programmer was like a priest who took your petition to the Great Mainframe. After a ritual sacrifice of punch cards and green bar paper, your prayers might be answered with a result that you could use.

I'd rather be seen as a team member who just happens to specialize in software. It's a lot like the film Oceans Eleven, where a team of specialists all work together to achieve a noble goal. (Their team also has a software specialist, albeit one with some ridiculous skills.)

Many of today's software professionals can credit some sort of computer science education (whether formal or informal) for their success. According to the CSEdWeek.org website, computer science education is essential for:

  • Exposing students to critical thinking and problem solving
  • Instilling understanding of computational thinking for success in the digital age
  • Preparing students to attack the world’s most challenging problems from a computation perspective

Formal education isn't the only way to get there, but I believe that computing-related topics deserve a prominent place in our schools. The CSEdWeek initiative seeks to raise awareness about the importance of computer science education, especially at the K-12 grade levels.

Now that's a computer program that I can get behind.

tags: Computer Science Education Week, csedweek

7 Comments

  1. Posted December 1, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    "A sun-deprived subterranean creature" .... This was the only reason I wanted to be a programmer! :-)

  2. Lee Creighton
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    You and I have a lot in common, Chris. My PhD is in Math, and I have an MA in French Literature. We make the best SAS product runners.

    • Chris Hemedinger Chris Hemedinger
      Posted December 2, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      It's our background in the Humanities that allow us to press F3 with the best of them.

  3. Karin Beckett
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Chris,
    You and I have alot in common. I majored in English, Sociology and Computer Information Sciences. I use all three areas in my work and they are all necessary to do turn data into useful information.

  4. Ginny Blum
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    An interesting post. I sometimes describe myself as a programmer if someone asks me what I do. I don't do that because I want to be thought of as a sun-deprived subterranean creature. Sometimes when I say it I think about the movie Woodstock when they introduced Max Yasgur and he pipes up, "I'm a farmer." Probably I just lost half the readers here!

    I want is to be thought of as someone who creates things that people use to do their work. As the author points out, it involves constant problem-solving, analytic thinking and communication, even negotiation, with humans. In my way of thinking it means I have to understand their work, how they do and why they do it so I can formulate solutions that work from beginning to end.

    I have run into so many system architects, data/database designers, business analysts -- perfectly nice people -- who sit around in meetings, toiling over complicated diagrams, wearing out white boards spinning dreams of data at users fingertips. Sadly, and this may say more about where I work than I should, if anything besides reams of paper ever comes from it, it's unusual. If that's what fancy job titles are I don't want them!

    • Chris Hemedinger Chris Hemedinger
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments Ginny! For me, programming is a means to an end. Some people like to program just because it's fun (to them), but I like to create something that's useful to me or to others.

      Meetings are necessary to help determine what exactly defines "useful". But meetings, in general, aren't fun. Software professionals are more than just a cog in the machinery; they often have to be a lubricant as well, interpreting the business needs (spoken and unspoken) into actionable system requirements and features.

  5. Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    I loved your post! Programming is something I do, but (1) the term actually incorporates lots of different skills and responsibilities (most of what we do in fact is think and design and evaluate, without a computer or a program in sight), and (2) the term doesn't even mention that our work connects with a larger mission (of providing access to information, or ways to analyze it, or transmitting it between people who need it, etc.).

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