Software, Work

The problem with developer job titles

Job titles are hard. This exchange on Twitter prompted a few thoughts that I couldn’t quite fit into a few smart-arsed twits.

In Chris’s Tweet he mentions that engineer is a co-opted title and that engineering is a discipline in its own right which most software groups don’t subscribe to because they aren’t really trying to do engineering. Not that this is a criticism but there is a massive difference between building a bridge or a road and creating a new web service. For a start there is a lot more established practice, science and understanding in physical engineering and more established and understood formal qualifications.

When I briefly worked in government helping create the Digital Careers framework people who were associated with Defence rightly objected to the confusion between software “engineering” and other engineers within professional frameworks. No-one is going to ask a developer to fix the combat damage on an airfield. I’ve previously joked that if we were honest we’d talk about “software overengineers” given that most developers struggle to find the simplest thing that works.

For the framework we settled on “developer” for people who wrote code and inconsistently used “engineering” for operational roles. I think on the basis that they created “infrastructure” where maybe the analogy makes a sort of sense.

I would also have gotten rid of “architect” if I’d had a chance; for exactly the same confusion but that term was too deeply embedded and still is a badge of prestige within the industry. Even now in the commercial world I have experienced hires wanting to be involved in “architecture” (and sadly not wanting to help me remodel my ground floor).

In Chris’s tweet he asks about what happened to the title “Programmer”. When I started in the industry this was indeed the coveted title and ideally I still think of myself this way even though it’s blatantly not true in the same way now.

However the issue with being a programmer is that jobs that literally involve just programming are few and far between. When I started in the industry the experienced developers were people who were at the tail-end of mainframe programming and a bit of what they were doing was still persuading machines to perform the tasks that were needed. The end was already in sight for pure programming jobs though. Some of my first professional programming work involved networking, a slightly dirty topic for the mainframe types.

Nowadays the emphasis is on understanding the domain space you are working on as well as the technical aspects of programming. I prefer the term “developer” (as others do) with the implication of being someone who develops systems of value via the medium of technology.

However that term also has its problems. When I worked at the Guardian I had a personal SEO battle with the Pune-based property development group for the search term “Guardian developers”. That battle seems to have been won now via sub-domain. This seems to be true more generally and now it is property developers who are having to use the prefix “property” on their job titles.

For a new profession not even past it’s first century, creating our professional lexicon is always going to be hard but in borrowing titles so shamelessly we are always creating problems for ourselves.

Programmer is probably the closest, truest name for what most of us do at the core of our role. For web developers though, assembling the typical bricolage of libraries and tooling is often an exercise in minimal programming and maximum duct taping. Perhaps it fairest to say that we are “software assemblers”, expect that might get confused with, you know, assemblers. Painful.

So in the end most of us are expected to bring capability in programming within teams that are creating technological systems of value. As long as programmers realise that programming is not the activity of value in itself then maybe we don’t need to worry so much about titles.

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