(This is a snapshot of my old weblog. New posts and selected republished essays can be found at raganwald.com.)

Monday, April 02, 2007
  Whither professionalism in our profession?

The title of this blog post on 37Signals is unprofessional. They are not alone: lots of CEOs curse, wear jeans, and commit other sacrileges against the code of conduct we call “professionalism.”

What happened?

First, there is nothing new about this. Do you consider The Beatles to be “old fashioned?” Did you know that at one time they were the drug using symbols of counter-culturalism?

Revolution in the Valley tells the incredible story of the creation of the Macintosh, from the perspectives of the people who were actually there. It’s packed with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and little-known secrets.

Much of the material is available on line for free. Speaking of counter-culturalism and revolutionaries, here is the story of the legendary Pirate Flag.

There is a certain appeal to being a symbol of upheaval. Every generation has had its rebels. In fact, a major component of fashion in clothes, music, and programming languages is the degree to which it irritates the “establishment.”

Why do you think there are so many people deriding the Ruby Community?1 They aren’t making this irritation up: part of the appeal of the Ruby on Rails ecosystem to certain people is that Matthew Huntbach doesn’t like it!

Feel free to say that Java doesn’t work this way. Like people discovering The Beatles late in life, you missed the nineties when Java was the agent of change and some C++ people were deriding it and its supporters as being unprofessional.

I’m not saying Ruby lacks objective value. In case you haven’t noticed, The Beatles made wonderful music that has passed the test of time. Even though some of their appeal was that parents hated their long hair. And 37Signals have something important to say. Even if they say it in an unprofessional way from time to time.

People being people, the long-term forecast is for sustained tension between conservatives who lament the erosion of professionalism and rebels who wear their unprofessionalism on their sleeve.

And the irony is, the unprofessionals of today will be the stodgy old codgers of tomorrow.

Just ask David Gilmour, CBE.

p.s. Sure, there’s an argument about professionalism somehow being correlated with competence. If you wish to make this argument, please be so kind as to provide some empirical evidence in support of your claim. For example, show that programmers wearing a suit to work outperform their colleagues who do not.

  1. I have no idea what the “Ruby Community” is. How do you define membership in this community? Matz is obviously in, but after that, who? Why the Lucky Stiff? DHH? Me? I don’t recall being asked to join.

Comments on “Whither professionalism in our profession?:
I was 14, I started at an all-male prep school. A couple of months in, my English teacher had to break into the regularly scheduled programming to explain that if you swore in ever response you offered in class, you would wind up unable to ever emphasize anything. Some people handle freedom well, some people need a nudge and a hint that maybe there's a middle ground to look for. I don't believe in censoring one's self, but I also don't believe in being lame by overdoing it. See the final letter at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/1999/03/25letters.html for a much better explanation.
"I have no idea what the “Ruby Community” is. How do you define membership in this community?"

No, no, the "Java Community" has a defined static membership, but the "Ruby Community" is more dynamic. As long as you respond to the right messages, you're just assumed to be a member.
Great post. I've been meaning to write something on this for a long time. In my mind, professionalism is often a poison pill for creativity. And I generally associate just that with all fluff, no substance. Which I fully realize is the exact opposite way many conservatives would view it.
Are there really so many people deriding Ruby? Sure there will always be a few people sniping at any emerging technology but I think most programmers look upon it favorably. At IBM, pretty much anyone I've talked to about Ruby is fond of it's constructs (this includes Erich Gamma, one of the folks most identified with Java).

Ruby's already hit its tipping point. It's adoption is going to continue to increase. May as well stop working about Ruby detractors and write more Ruby code :-)
Ugh, sorry for the typos above (several "it's" and "working" rather than "worrying") ... tired!
I agree that too much professionalism will stifle creativity, but is not swearing on a blog that I might want to show to people both above me in the company pecking order really so much to ask?

Let's phrase is another way. How much creativity am I losing to be able to show SvN to my boss without fear that the first thing he'll see is DHH proving he can't express discontent without swearing?

If it doesn't impinge on the artistic abilities too much I wouldn't mind being able to read 37 signal's blog without worrying about systems and networking interrogating me for reading offensive material at work.

Your argument disturbs me. Not you personally, because it makes sense. In fact, it disturbs me because I know it to be sensible in many places.

What you seem to be saying is:

I don't have a problem with it, but there are these other people that have a problem with it, and that is a problem for me.

The world is full of that. You know, that's how people used to discriminate against employing marginalized people.

"Oh no, I don't have a problem employing a homosexual. I agree she can do the job. But my customers..."

That sounds extreme, but really, isn't that the situation your boss and your networking group have put you in?

That regardless of what you think of the way DHH chooses to express himself, you have to stop and think about whether they would put style ahead of substance?

Again, I don't want to pick on you, because I agree that your situation is very real and very common.

But consider this argument that someone might have posited to their teen aged children in 1965:

"Fine, you like that Rock and Roll stuff. But why do they have to flaunt that deviant lifestyle? Why can't they just wear decent clothes and just make music?"

I can see your point, but the problem is that there will always be something that crosses the line for one group of people and doesn't for another. Traditionally the "stodgy old codgers" have their lines closer than any other group. Unfortunately they also usually happen to be in charge since they've had more opportunities to gain the prerequisite experience.

Your analogy to rock and roll breaks down because we aren't simply asking our bosses to let us listen to our music, we're asking them to enjoy it with us and base their careers on it. You can't successfully ask that without giving at least a little consideration to their position and sensibilities.

My point is that it disturbs me, not that you should make a different choice.

And if you read my post carefully, you will see that I am not arguing that "unprofessional" behaviour is more creative or better, or even desirable.

My argument is that there will be some people who make that choice specifically to make your boss uncomfortable.

And yes, it is exactly the same as Rock and Roll. When it was the music of the underclasses, there were radio stations that banned it.

In the days before MTV, nobody listening to the music had to look at the hairstyles of the musicians, yet the mere association with the lifestyle was considered an offense.

And we can toss out the argument that the lyrics were offensive. They did the same thing to Jazz before Rock and Roll!

<< Home
Reg Braithwaite

Recent Writing
Homoiconic Technical Writing / raganwald.posterous.com

What I‘ve Learned From Failure / Kestrels, Quirky Birds, and Hopeless Egocentricity

rewrite_rails / andand / unfold.rb / string_to_proc.rb / dsl_and_let.rb / comprehension.rb / lazy_lists.rb

IS-STRICTLY-EQUIVALENT-TO-A / Spaghetti-Western Coding / Golf is a good program spoiled / Programming conventions as signals / Not all functions should be object methods

The Not So Big Software Design / Writing programs for people to read / Why Why Functional Programming Matters Matters / But Y would I want to do a thing like this?

The single most important thing you must do to improve your programming career / The Naïve Approach to Hiring People / No Disrespect / Take control of your interview / Three tips for getting a job through a recruiter / My favourite interview question

Exception Handling in Software Development / What if powerful languages and idioms only work for small teams? / Bricks / Which theory fits the evidence? / Still failing, still learning / What I’ve learned from failure

The unary ampersand in Ruby / (1..100).inject(&:+) / The challenge of teaching yourself a programming language / The significance of the meta-circular interpreter / Block-Structured Javascript / Haskell, Ruby and Infinity / Closures and Higher-Order Functions

Why Apple is more expensive than Amazon / Why we are the biggest obstacles to our own growth / Is software the documentation of business process mistakes? / We have lost control of the apparatus / What I’ve Learned From Sales I, II, III

The Narcissism of Small Code Differences / Billy Martin’s Technique for Managing his Manager / Three stories about The Tao / Programming Language Stories / Why You Need a Degree to Work For BigCo

06/04 / 07/04 / 08/04 / 09/04 / 10/04 / 11/04 / 12/04 / 01/05 / 02/05 / 03/05 / 04/05 / 06/05 / 07/05 / 08/05 / 09/05 / 10/05 / 11/05 / 01/06 / 02/06 / 03/06 / 04/06 / 05/06 / 06/06 / 07/06 / 08/06 / 09/06 / 10/06 / 11/06 / 12/06 / 01/07 / 02/07 / 03/07 / 04/07 / 05/07 / 06/07 / 07/07 / 08/07 / 09/07 / 10/07 / 11/07 / 12/07 / 01/08 / 02/08 / 03/08 / 04/08 / 05/08 / 06/08 / 07/08 /