Programmers are brain surgeons

Programmers are brain surgeons is a blog post I was sent that looks at how programmers are perceived in the pecking order of job titles. The basis of the argument is that programming in itself should be valued, that programmers should not aspire to be managers who then leave programming behind, and that the programmer may be best placed to manage projects. It draws analogies with professions such as law and architecture where the expert is also the manager.

There are certainly things I do agree with there and it’s part of the ethos of Exponetic to value what programmers can add to a project beyond the ‘man hours at a desk’ commodity approach. (This is something that’s sometimes reflected in the way work is presented: “We’ve got about two weeks work to do.” The question is, two weeks of a good programmer or two weeks of an average one? There’s a big difference.)

I recently explored comparisons with another profession I’m familiar with (architecture) and where it might lead to in an article in New Media Age. It’s certainly one of those areas that’s fraught with trouble. An analogy made to highlight one point can, simply by association, lead people to assume that there’s a direct comparison being made. In fact, authors often make the same mistake. Although Programmers are brain surgeons doesn’t do this there are a number of areas where I think even the ‘programmers as managers’ point can break down.

Firstly, I do want to say that the underlying message, that programmers shouldn’t need to think of programming as a stepping stone to something better, is something I agree with. I don’t think too many programmers would disagree with that either, although the commercial career ladder may tell them otherwise.

The truth of the matter, though, is that some people are suited to being programmers in the same way that some people are suited to being managers. To say something like “and you’ll be reporting to a project manager with maybe a quarter your skills and experience…” as the article does is to make the same mistake as the author is accusing those who denigrate programming of making.

There are, of course, some people who are suited to both to a lesser or greater degree but market forces are surely dictating that projects need a range of skills, otherwise a range of jobs wouldn’t exist. If companies could save on staff numbers they would. Bringing back the analogy to professions again: a lot of professional practice firms aren’t particularly well run as businesses. The growth in construction managers is testament to that in the building industry.

The article, if it does have validity, seems to me to only apply to either a relatively small cross-section of people (those who fit the profile of programmer + manager), or a distinct type of project (those that can be completed by a single person).

Being a programmer is indeed a worthwhile career aspiration in itself but I can’t see programmers ruling the world any time soon.

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