‘Professionalism’

I can’t stand the term ‘professionalism’. Whenever I hear it, it my BS-detector jumps immediately to red-alert because it’s a way of shutting people down with a power play or an appeal to tradition rather than positively engaging with them.

Unlike say law, where there are defined professional standards, professionalism in the software industry is highly subjective. Take for example a relatively simple aspect of development like commenting. A more traditional perspective on commenting is that every (i.e. not just the public ones) method should have comments indicating what the method does and the purposes of its parameters and return values. My concept of quality code is that clear naming, good cohesion and design will provide you that information – the ‘what’ if you will – and comments should be reserved for the ‘why’, i.e. to explain decisions, whether design-level or business-level, that are not intuitive. There are tomes on this subject and ongoing debates about the discipline of maintaining documentation versus letting the current clean code speak for itself. Regardless of where you fall in this debate, swiping it all away by calling one approach ‘professional’ and the other not removes the opportunity for reasoned debate, for improved understanding, and for finding the most appropriate solution specific to the circumstances.

The net result of invoking ‘professionalism’ is disempowerment. If you shut down a discussion on the basis of this power play then you’ve rejected without consideration an opinion of a peer. They will likely resent this lack of consideration, and it certainly won’t encourage them to contribute further opinions. As is well documented in the literature on teamwork, it is the consideration of a combination of perspectives and ideas that enables the best solutions to be found. In effect, by invoking ‘professionalism’ you’re throwing away the investment your company is making into expensive human resources.

This doesn’t mean it should be an anarchic free-for-all. Coding standards are fine: they create consistency that allows code to be more easily understood by unfamiliar parties. There can also be other factors at play like external forces which push decisions in a certain direction, and those should be the answer to questions of “why do we do it this way?” rather than the dismissive ‘professionalism’. Standards and practices that are built on solid reasoning will stand up to scrutiny, and scrutiny of them should be welcomed because if they don’t stand up to the challenge of re-examination then there is an opportunity to make an improvement within the organization.

‘Professional’ needs to become another corporate punchline, like ‘synergy’, and that way we keep our people empowered and can keep improving our organizations.