January 03, 2020
One of the factors concomitant to the development of society is the division of labour, which itself is deeply rooted in the idea that a person’s life is interwoven with what they do, day in and day out. We view life and people around us through this prism of vocations: a coal miner would have a distinct idea of a hard day’s work compared to that of a vascular surgeon, and, in turn, a battalion commander would quite inimitably retell a story about his encounter with a career politician.
Once you discover your metier, you get to enjoy a sense of belonging and assuredness, even with the other perks of the job being potentially small. However, an increasing number of people gets to find out that what they do does not neatly fall into the preconceived notions of societal value. Old labels invariably miss the mark by trying to conflate outdated ideas with new context, while new labels don’t yet connote a universal image to stick to when venturing outside of an industry bubble.
With the job market trending heavily towards specialisation, this seems like a natural response towards complexities of the modern world. Every facet of life gets increasingly more atomised, so people tend to occupy smaller and smaller niches. This allows for a stronger focus on critical issues, a more efficient use of human resources, and overall a more rewarding work experience. Or does it?
By Any Other Name
As we’re moving forward in the 21st century, jobs start to place higher on the ladder of abstraction. It is not uncommon to see a person creating value at some stage of production being twice or thrice removed from the consumer. So what’s the issue?
To be concrete, let’s look at software engineering (where managing abstraction is a job hazard, after all), a flourishing and very democratic field that has newcomers consistently outnumber experienced programmers every year. It can be argued that computer technology is abstract by nature and that we should expect software engineers to feel more comfortable dealing with ones and zeroes rather than Johns and Janes. And they do! But at what cost? We as humans are terrible at maintaining any sort of balance.
Skin In The Game
The software engineer is typically viewed as a rather unsocial and unkempt creature, somewhat easily placated, a resource to be managed and a name to which you assign a task. You can put them into crunch mode or you may choose to underpay or outsource them. And in many (not all!) cases that’s exactly true.
You may instantly see an imbalance between the prospective value a programmer can bring to a company and their ranking in the corporate jungle. You can point to a plethora of factors which may be the cause of this: predatory managerial tactics, unfavourable market forces, turbulent economic times, etc. But there may be another, more fundamental issue that plagues software engineering community around the world.
The Software Detachment
The aforementioned atomisation and abstraction of work planted a perilous idea into the minds of software engineers, which is “my job starts and ends with writing code”. An innocuous idea at first glance turns into a tragic one, as it is exactly the software engineer who — with the good command of just several programming technologies — has an unprecedented freedom and opportunity to create and produce. To easily prove that this is already the case, try not to interact with any software for a day to see just how prominent its role is in your life. Thus, knowing how to code is akin to learning a foreign alphabet. Good job, but it’s only the beginning.
The next step lies in realising the immense power and, of course, responsibility of a software engineer. In other words, treating software engineering as profession is what will elevate it to the status it deserves, empowering all practitioners and their work. Reaching such a lofty goal is possible only by starting at the smallest scale possible — at the level of individual.
The Forest for the Trees
We are trained to follow a certain path as it was set out for us early in life. We mark our progress by notches of schools and colleges, medals and certificates, salaries and promotions. But an important, simple, and almost impossible realisation (deep into unknown unknowns territory) is that we have agency. Stepping off the beaten path, at least for a moment, gives us the perspective needed to begin materialising that potential which is inherent to all of us. Without this knowledge, our work will never reach the value of a true profession.
Following this step, we are fully ready to improve our craft daily. To teach and be taught. To love and value what we do. To be demanding: primarily of ourselves but also of others. To challenge, rethink, rework, and restructure. But most importantly to realise that we have a calling.
So what is your calling?
Personal blog by Andrey Krasnov who lives and works in Saint Petersburg creating useful things. You should say 'hi' to him on Twitter