Rhetoric | In Business, What is a True Professional?


The World of Software Engineering

In that milieu of constant flux and change of focus, is it possible

to be, and remain, a true professional?

This discourse examines the question, “What is a true professional?”  Many callings claim to fit into the larger term “Professional;” hence the terms, “Legal Profession,” “Medical Profession” or “Teaching Profession.”  Putting yourself into the professional category adds instant respect, status and cachet, doesn’t it?  Saying, “I’m in the legal profession,” carries a lot more credibility than saying, “I’m in the trades,” doesn’t it?  You may answer, “America isn’t like that today, is it?”

I’m afraid so.

In my current secret-life as a Software Configuration Manager for fourteen years and, previously as a “Technical Sales Professional” for nearly twenty, I can emphatically answer, “Yes, America is still like that.”

To many people, that term I used above, “Sales Professional,”, seems like a laughable oxymoron.  The term salesman dredges up unpleasant images of cigar-chomping, loud-mouthed, prevaricating individuals whose only motive is to separate you from your cash.  The leaders in the self-proclaimed “Sales Profession”—always aware of that stereotype—do their best to promulgate a set of recommended behaviors to, at the very least, produce the perception of a person who is interested only in helping you select a purchase that will economically solve a problem or satisfy one of your immediate needs. Further, as this reasoning goes, if this desire to help you is successful, then the by-product—not the goal—of that transaction is a handsome (sometimes) commission.

To be fair, the scenario, above, describing a “professional” salesman, is indeed the paradigm followed by a few good people who perform the sales role.  Although classifying the members of the sales department of some company as “professionals” might be arguable—in my view—if you act like a true professional, by putting your customer’s interests first and then letting the money-issues come as they may, then you are a true professional, regardless of what others may argue.

By the same token, if you are a member of one of the established, non-arguable “professions,” like the Legal Profession or the Medical Profession, and the thing uppermost in your mind, while dealing with your client or patient, is your remuneration, and if you view the solution to his or her problem as a means of getting to that money, then your aren’t a true professional.  You’re rather, a professed professional.  In other words, the shingle hanging outside your building is a joke, no less laughable than the image of the cigar-chomping, loud-mouthed prevaricator described above when he refers to himself a “sales professional.”

Now we get to the world of “Software Engineering”, at least as seen from my “fly-on-the-wall” perspective as a mid-level manager.  Today, almost no one—including the Fortune 500, the Fortune 100 or the Federal and State governments—any longer has a fully staffed “computer-programming department.”  In the past fourteen years, I’ve been part of software-development efforts for all of the above.  Usually, some third-party consulting contractor known as the “Prime,” or “prime contractor” managed those projects.  This prime contractor hires other consulting companies and individual software engineers and managers.

On some of my projects I reported directly to the prime contractor, on others I reported to one of the sub-contractors.  Seldom did I report directly to the sponsoring government or corporate entity.  I’m spelling out these boring structural details to set up the test for true-professionalism that will be carried out for the rest of this article.  There are opportunities at all of those levels to examine this question.  However, the reality of today’s chaotic round of projects starting and ending, of contractors and “contingent resources” (individual engineers) coming and going, of primes, subs and individuals being hired and being fired or layed-off, then being hired by some other project or entity, makes it very difficult for any of the participants to have much empathy with the level above them in the management hierarchy.

Difficult, yes.  Excusing lapses in professionalism, no.

Realistically though, at that top, corporate-level, money is usually the corporation’s statutorily mandated main goal.  Publicly traded corporations have a legally mandated fiduciary duty to their stockholders to produce a profit.  That mandate precludes any publically traded corporation from ever satisfying my above definition of a true professional because such entities are prohibited from putting the interests of the customer first. According to the securities laws of the United States, if the corporation can turn in a profit and then a positive contribution to society or to their direct customer just happens to result, as a by-product, then okay.

To be fair, without the money, the entire opportunity to exercise your skills and talents in a truly professional manner doesn’t exist in the first place; so it’s a good thing people at some level are paying attention to those kinds of details.  Down at our level though, it does take some effort to ignore the non-professional container in which we all work and to make sure that in our plane of existence we are being true professionals.

War stories.

I can tell you dozens of stories about how individuals, or even managers of sub-contracting companies, machinated to put a another contractor or sub-contracting company into a bad light in order to obtain a greater share of the budget available within a project. In the examples that I’m thinking about, there was obviously no concern for the risks to the sponsor’s schedule caused by making unnecessary and unwarranted changes to team structure.  I say unnecessary because the recommendation for change came from trumped-up or exaggerated charges in the first place.

In one example, the motivation for such machinations was not money at all but a perceived insult. In that case, one individual, within range of my hearing, made an admittedly ill-chosen comment about the political history in a group of engineers’ mutual country of origin. Subsequently I witnessed a months-long subtle sabotage-effort by that group, who owned the project’s computer work-environment.  This continual causing of the offender’s computer scripts to crash was accompanied by many negative and loudly broadcast derogatory comments about the offender’s abilities as he attempted to deal with the effects of that sabotage. Eventually, that engineer was prematurely “rolled-off” the project.  Again, no thought was given by that group to the risks created against our sponsor’s schedule by the unwarranted change on the team.  When the offending engineer was rolled-off, I observed a smirking attitude amongst that group as if the entire thing were a big joke.

Whether ambition, greed or resentment over a perceived slight motivates these un-professional acts, the fact remains: they are unacceptable and not in the best interest of the one who, trustingly, is paying you.  Putting your own self-interest ahead of your client’s is classically unprofessional and a violation of that trust.  It’s tantamount to biting the hand that feeds you. As a current TV show segment says, “Don’t’ be that guy.”  Don’t be that guy, that is, if you want to claim to be a true professional.