Published April 19, 2006

How
do people become professional programmers? Many people go the
“traditional” path through a computer science or software engineering
education and from there into professional programming work.

Others become professional programmers by accident. A person writes
a small program to help at work, and their workmates say, “Oh great,
you can write programs! You’re our programmer now!”

Other people start out as hobbyists and follow a less traditional
path, not always getting a degree, but clearly wanting to be
programmers from the start and working actively towards that goal.

I’ve been a hobbyist programmer since I was 6. I wasn’t writing
anything amazing back then but I had started writing and soon found it
was absorbing most of my time. Since I never really stopped, that gives
me 24 years “programming experience” and counting.

At first I was into writing computer games. Later people asked me to
write programs for them, and sometimes I even got paid. From this I
learned that software is always for something. Programs are not
self contained worlds of their own. People expect things out of a
program that have more to do with Japanese or Geophysics or Engineering
(or whatever they’ve got in mind) than with how a computer works. I had
to learn something about all those domains in order to write programs
for them.

At university it didn’t take long before I was a tutor, and that’s
where I found I enjoy teaching, and especially enjoy teaching
programming.

While I was at university I got my first “real” job, writing Visual
C++ code for a financial database company. In terms of design and
theory it was lightweight stuff. But in terms of working with others on
a large project I was being thrown in the deep end! They had gigabytes
of source code, growing cancerously through the efforts of a dozen
developers of wildly differing skill levels.

In spite of my programming skills being well above average there, I
learned to settle for being a junior programmer, a little fish in a
large pond.

Skipping along a few more jobs and a lot more years, today I am a
senior developer in a small research group—a big fish in a little pond.
I’ve had to teach my co-workers a lot about professional programming,
because most of them haven’t been in industry to get that taste of what
large code bases and diverse skill levels do to programs if you aren’t
using those “professional” skills to keep everyone pointed in the same
direction.

There’s quite a gap between “being able to program” and being a
“professional programmer.” It took me 15 years to go from beginner to
hotshot programmer, then another 10 years to go from hotshot to
professional—and I’m still learning.

Whatever the path we follow, most professional programmers have in common the fact that they learned to code first and how to be a professional later.

The Meaning of “Professional”

So what does it mean to be a professional programmer? What does it mean to be a professional anything?
Some definitions simply say to be a professional is “to make money from
a skill,” but true professionals also have a set of qualities often
described as “professionalism.” In my opinion, these qualities are:
trustworthiness, teamwork, leadership, communication, constant updating
of skills, an interest in minimizing risks and accountability. Each of
these effect the professional programmer in certain ways.

Trustworthiness The concept of trustworthiness applies in
several different ways for programmers. Can you be trusted with a job?
To perform a task without someone checking up on you? Can you be
trusted to ask for help when you need it?

If you’re given clients’ data or have signed a non-disclosure
agreement, then you are being trusted to respect privacy. You are
trusted to check license agreements on third party tools or libraries
and to get licenses or permission as required. And like any
professional you are trusted to simply do a good job.

Teamwork Will you genuinely cooperate with your team mates?
Will you work to mutual advantage and not just your own? Can you trust
your team to work with you? Can you do your share of the work and trust
your team to do the rest? And can you accept your management (and
sometimes even clients) as part of the team, everyone trying to get the
same job done?

Leadership Showing leadership means both earning respect from
others and knowing what to do with it. Recognize the skills of your
team members, and make sure you can offer each person challenges and
development without exceeding what they can cope with at a given time.

Leadership involves not always getting to do the “fun” parts of a
project yourself (that scary “delegation” word). It also involves not
asking anyone to do a task that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.
It’s not just the managers and lead programmers who need to show
leadership, it’s any professional programmer. The best programmers to
work with are the ones that know what’s going on, not just their little
tasks.

Communication Respecting the people you work with, and your clients, enough to really listen to them is a critical part of communication. Teamwork can’t happen without good communication, nor can accountability.

Communication is critical for helping clients to produce usable
specifications and feedback. Will you question whether the specs you
are given really will serve the purpose that the client has in mind?

Communication skills help with making meetings timely and effective.
A professional’s communication is effective and to the point, whether
in person, in email, on the phone or in written documents.

Documentation at first seems like a programmer-specific concern
until you consider how many people require documentation in a serious
project: other programmers need high level, API level and in-code
documentation; managers need planning, progress, and bug documentation;
lawyers need proof of what was done and when; and users need
documentation on how to use the software.

Updating Skills Keeping your skills up to date involves
staying aware of what’s going on in your industry. What are the current
ideas about methodologies like eXtreme Programming? What libraries and
tools are out there that might support your project? What are the
current refactoring tools? How about standards, file formats and
protocols? Are you up to date with Unicode, XML, SQL, and all the other
acronyms? Perhaps you’re missing out on something if you’re not. What
platforms are your potential clients using? Should you be learning
about cross platform development?

Basically you need to possess a genuine interest in your field, and
to read broadly so you know what’s out there and which areas to then
read deeply about. You also need to accept that even (or should I say
“especially”) the very best programmers are still learning.

Minimizing Risks Familiarity with best practices, combined
with a healthy dose of common sense, will take you a long way towards
managing risks. Professional programmers keep track of known bugs or
any other change they intend to make. Bugs are risks, and a simple
database can prevent you having a product ship with bugs you’d simply
forgotten.

Another risk that’s often not properly considered is any and all
changes to the source code. Source is your livelihood and any change
can be a mistake. There’s good software out there that will keep track
of every revision of your source code and even help merge code that
multiple people have changed.

Professional programmers are careful to do enough testing. A
software company will generally have testers but the developers need to
know how to get the most out of testers and also how to write their own
unit and regression tests to make sure every change in behavior is
noticed and checked by a human.

Keeping your code simple and well styled is another commonly
overlooked way to manage risks. If anyone can look at the code and see
right away what it does, you are far less likely to find bugs in it
later, and you are less likely to have a junior programmer attempt to
change something without understanding it first.

Another risk is the client changing their mind, or more often
changing their specifications because they’ve realized it wasn’t what
they had in mind. Write your code to be modular and reusable and you
won’t have any trouble adapting it to changing needs.

Accountability Writing code for others is a responsibility.
You need to make sure your software is reliable. You need to make sure
you and the client truly understand the requirements and
specifications. You need to have documentation of your work, all
current and past bugs, your progress, any problems, signed-off
milestones, and more. You are also required to know about some basic
legal issues, like software licensing, the terms of your employment
contract, and intellectual property law.

* * *

As you can see, there is a huge gap between “coding” and
“professional programming.” Most programming courses focus on the
coding side of things, and the professional skills tend to be glossed
over or not covered at all. I have found myself regularly teaching
these skills to new co-workers, which highlighted the need for
“professionalism skills training.” Teaching my co-workers reminded me
how much I enjoy teaching. I decided to teach more people by trying my
hand at professional writing for a change.

I set up a web site, which is completely independent from my day job. The site is called Developing Programmers.com.
It is devoted to teaching people how to develop into professional
programmers. Since founding the site, I’ve been presenting the tools
and ideas that I think professionals should know about.

Some of my articles simply refer to other sites of benefit to
would-be professionals. I research other articles from scratch:
tutorials, guides, and discussions of things professionals should be
thinking about, like revision control, documentation, keeping your
group pointed in the same direction—and of course, each of the aspects
of professionalism that I listed earlier.

These days I consider myself to be a professional programmer, though
I am still discovering the depth and breadth of what exactly that
means. Perhaps that ongoing exploration of programming and of
professionalism is what makes this for me a career and not just a job.

Sarah George
lives in Melbourne, Australia, and holds an honors degree in Computer
Science. She has had a range of programming-related jobs, including
applied programming, teaching computer science practical and tutorial
classes, and is currently working as part of an artificial intelligence
research team at Monash University. Her web site, Developing
Programmers .com, is aimed at programmers who want to become more
professional about their craft.

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