April 11, 2018
The Foundation of a Dev Profession Should Be MentoringWhat makes something like engineering or law or medicine a "profession"? Ask me 20 years ago, I'd have said it was standards and ethics, policed by some kind of professional body and/or the law. There are certain things, say, an electronic engineer isn't supposed to do, certain things you can't ask your doctor for, certain things a lawyer would end up in jail for doing.
Ask me today, and my answer would be this: a profession is a community of people following a vocation - like writing software or teaching children - that professes how it works to people who want to learn how to do it.
Experienced school teachers help people learning to be school teachers how to teach. They pass on the benefit of their experience, including all the stuff an even more experienced teacher passed on to them.
I still very much believe that standards and ethics must be part of a profession of software development. But I'm increasingly convinced that the bedrock of any such profession would be mentoring. I think of all the time I wasted in my early years of programming, and all the things that would have helped enormously to know back then. Even programming for fun in my teenage bedroom would have been made easier with some basic code craft like unit testing and rudimentary version control.
I was very lucky to be exposed to much more experienced "software engineers" who nudged me firmly in the direction of rigorous user-centred iterative software development, mentioning books I should read, newsgroups I should visit, courses I should go on, and showing me with their day-to-day examples techniques I still apply - and teach - today.
I make it my business today to pass on the benefits of the mentoring I received.And that, to my mind, should be the basis for a profession of software development.
For that to work, though, it's necessary that developers stay developers. "Use it or lose it" has never been more true than in software. I see developers I coached 10 years ago get promoted into management roles - sheesh, I know a lot of CTOs, according to LinkedIn - and quickly lose their coding abilities and fall behind with the technology. Their experience might be invaluable to someone starting out, but it's hard to lead by example if the last programming you did was in Visual C++ 6.0 and your junior devs are working in F#.
So, another pillar of this professional foundation must necessarily be parallel career progression - up to CTO equivalent - for developers. Looking for work for the first time in a decade has left me in little doubt that - with a handful of glorious exceptions that I'm exploring - many employers don't want older (i.e., more expensive) developers, and even the most senior dev roles typically pay a lot less than management equivalents. I meet a lot of senior managers who are reluctantly in this roles because they have big mortgages and school fees to pay. They'd much rather have stayed hands-on. If the best potential mentors are disappearing into meeting rooms all day, it will always be impossible to square this circle.
The idea's been floated before - including by me - but I think it's finally time to start a software developer's guild, with a specific purpose of championing long-term mentoring and parallel career progression for devs who want to stay devs.
Who's with me?
Posted 1 week, 6 days ago on April 11, 2018