Prognosis of a Profession

Posted 14 Jan 2002 at 18:20 UTC by sej Share This

I read a lot of diary entries over the holidays on the prognosis of free-software/open-source. One theme I extracted was the lack of structural incentives for collaboration between corporations as well as programmers.

Although companies donate to charities all the time, they have a hard time allowing their programmers to donate time to software development efforts that are not clearly in their interest. And when an individual programmer looks for an activity to work on in their spare time, they are more than likely to focus on something they personally control, in hopes of accruing accolades or rewards for their solo efforts. Can things ever be different?

Then I observed that things are different in professions other than computer programming. Physicians, lawyers, even electrical engineers are all allowed or encouraged by their employers to make contributions of intellectual property back to their professional communities in general. An important part of physician training is serving the indigent population. Lawyers do pro-bono work all the time. Engineers serve on all sorts of committees. These activities have an indirect benefit to the professional and their employer that is rather similar to the benefit accrued by allowing a programming professional to work on free-software/open-source.

Consider what if the profession of programming strongly encouraged apprentices to spend time evolving someone else's free software before launching their own projects. What if the thousands of programmers motivated enough to establish a project on SourceForge had dedicated themselves to advancing an established project instead? Diversity of source and freedom to start from scratch are fundamental to this community, but the difficult task of building on someone else's foundation should be what we praise.

Consider what if business owners recognized and encouraged the contributions of their programmers to their profession. What if we could make the shift from managers nervous their employees are wasting time to managers aware of and proud of their employees contributions, and managers that trust their professionals to get the job done at the same time.

All this is already happening in many places, but as the diaries made clear, it is the exception, not the norm. Programming is an immature profession. Gates and Stallman have unnecessarily polarized the debate over its nature. From the longer-term perspective of the professions in general, the middle ground is the high ground. Let's take it.

Programmers are not perceived as Professionals., posted 14 Jan 2002 at 19:21 UTC by bbense » (Journeyer)

- In my brief contacts with Corporate Culture, I think that programmers are not perceived as "Professionals". All the examples you sight Doctor's, Lawyers and Engineers have strong professional societies and organized barriers to entry. You can't be a doctor, lawyer or engineer until you've passed certain certifications.

- Programmers on the other hand vary so widely in education and experience that Corporate Culture treats then as a funny kind of Plumber. There are exceptions of course, I used to think that working at a University you could actually get paid to do this kind of contribution. It's certainly something that I've lobbied my bosses that it's important for the University to have me do, since the University uses the code.

- We've got a refugee from Corporate Land as our head of IT now and his notion of Corporate Culture is definitely infiltrating the way the University runs it's IT shops. My job is gradually turning from working on open source IT projects for the benefit of the University into yet another shitty IT job.

Donating programming time, posted 14 Jan 2002 at 21:32 UTC by nymia » (Master)

The article made a huge impression in the sense that it touched how some of my personal experiences led me to some important conclusions. One of them is the idea of ownership. Most developers, including me, have this idea that software projects are basically owned by a group of people. These owners have all the authority necessary keep the project going. They have a formal or informal command structure wherein all issues are discussed and resolved. Given enough time, the project grows and evolves into something of having great use-value.

Now comes the interesting part, once a project reaches a stable milestone, say, beta. Would the project accept ideas that changes the framework of the application. From my experience, it will surely get rejected though. Therefore, why would one join the project knowing the ideas would be rejected?

One of the solution is to look for more, look for projects that closely matches the ideals of the contributor. Once a good match is found, then I think, things will fall into place.

There's more to programming than programming, posted 14 Jan 2002 at 22:14 UTC by niksilver » (Journeyer)

Doctors and lawyers perform obvious social benefits when they work in the community. Let's not confuse that with engineers sitting on panels to to ratify IEEE standard 1234. In that latter case programmers do do that: there are various computer standards bodies that confirm standards that make the Internet go round.

But while programming is great fun, there are many more things an experienced developer can do to help their community. Some of these are obvious, e.g. PC support and training for local people: "Here's how to avoid getting a virus on your PC", "Here's are some simple troubleshooting techniques", etc.

Some of them are not so obvious. Here in the UK there's a serious shortage of science-based teachers. Local libraries could really do with qualified people helping out in evening classes for underprivileged children. Even going back to your old school and giving a talk would be appreciated a lot of the time.

Programmers have a lot to offer others, and working on open source software gives us a good moral flush. But if a company isn't willing to indulge a developer in their hobbies during work time then there's a lot more they could happily support them in. And much more we have to offer.

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