“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes”
– William Shakespeare
Recently I had the misfortune of needing to drag my sorry carcass to my bank. Upon arriving, and declaring my need for assistance, I was asked to wait and swatted into a corner. There, I did what everyone in possession of a smartphone and a long wait does, I flicked through various vacuous social media on my phone. The epitome of a millennial.
Finally, I was ushered into a room to discuss my woes. The resolution of which unfortunately involved activity I try to eschew as much as possible: the delight of form filling. There it was, the inevitable question: “What is your profession?” What was I to answer? My job title is void in its meaning: what on earth is a ‘Systems Developer’? I decided to resort to the more common description of ‘Software Developer’; at least that is sometimes recognisable. The bank staff member squinted at the dropdown list on his screen; he was clearly unable to find a match. “Are you… ‘Scientific and IT professionals’?”, he hesitantly asked. I decided to answer the affirmative quickly since I wished to escape the cacophony of economical sophistication: sterile plastic pot plants, polyester attire and interminable amounts of veneer.
I am rarely surprised these days to find myself without a recognisable job title. This is perfectly excusable considering the circumstances; computing science as a profession has only existed since the 20th century. Despite this short existence, its effects have managed to proliferate and technology has become interwoven with our lives. Our imperfect pseudo-English machine poetry is omnipresent, making us, the machine whisperers, ever more influential. Therefore we must make sure the software we create is something we are proud to let loose on the world. For that we need standards, and a definition of what we do. Sadly still our job remains a black box to most of the world. A state of job-titless which leaves us with no means of communicating with others what we do.
Many software professionals have adopted the title of ‘Engineer’ as a proxy for a suitable title. It does provide much of the conceptual understanding for outside parties to comprehend; engineers build using complex and difficult ideas. I for one feel somewhat hesitant adopting that title; is it a theft of another profession’s title? It’s certainly better than ‘IT person’ as usually people request you to fix a printer when they hear that. (“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”) Software developer, although more commonly used, has it’s own issues – it means very little to most people. Why is that and how can we change it? We need to investigate the meanings of words, and where meaning comes from.
A word in itself is some sounds uttered by one’s vocal cords, or some scrawled symbols, and it has in itself no intrinsic meaning. Named a rose or a cabbage – it would smell the same. Rather it’s meaning – denotation – comes from what is given to it. Since words are a mechanism of collective understanding, the meaning is the aggregated cumulation of concepts behind the word (called heuristics). As time has passed many words have shifted in meaning as shared usage has changed. When a word is used in a certain context, it adopts that context and comes to symbolise it.
An interesting story of the appropriation of concepts comes from the origins of the name of the infamous killing machine: the guillotine. Dr Guillotin, the man behind the name, despite what you might expect, was a man against the death penalty and famed only for philanthropy. He was put on a committee in charge of reforming executions from either hanging or beheading. Beheadings had hitherto under the acient régime been reserved only for the rich, thus delegating hanging to be the cause of death for inferior people. It was decided that this wasn’t fair. Inferior people had the right to the same gruesome death as their superiors (how fortuitous; I am sure the doomed were delighted!).
To return back to Dr Guillotine. He did his research. The results of which led to him recommending a new machine from Germany (our guillotine as yet unnamed). When displaying his findings he uttered the phrase ‘With my machine, I cut off your head in a twinkling, and without your suffering a twinge’. People at the time found that a very amusing – to execute using philanthropy! How fantastic! Some clever wits put their heads together and crafted a song which quickly amalgamated itself into popular culture. Soon the concept of the new killing machine became attached to the name Dr Guillotin, and thus the name of a man famed for philanthropy, came only to be remember through a machine of extermination. One suspects he was less than elated.
This story serves to illustrate that we should be careful as to how we use words. Using a word with a different concept can change the associations of it in people’s minds; it becomes linked with it’s new meaning and the original is lost. The change can either be a strengthening of the favourable aspects of the original meaning – amelioration – or a negative change: pejoration, which poor Dr Guillotin fell foul of. We need to make the title of ‘Developer’ experience amelioration; execute – forgive the pun! – Dr Guillotin’s story in reverse.
The current static conceptual meaning of the word engineer is defined by the following words and phrases:
designers, planners, builders, architects, producers, developers, creators, inventors, originators, devisers, contrivers, mastermind solutions to complex problems, be respected, be trusted, be esteemed
Us developers need to steal this meaning.
We live in a world ruled by code. The C code in your old washing machine was coded in all probability by a man wearing a utility belt at 3:45am drinking from a slowly decreasing stack of canned caffeinated sugar water. I’d rather not have my AI car in 2030 built like that. Fiery deaths, I hear, are mighty unpleasant.
Names are important (even if Juliet Capulet wishes it were not true). They create understanding. Therefore, we need to find our own definition to decry our standards to the world (and then undoubtedly have others steal our title in the hope of acquiring our merit). Considering ourselves against the definition of ‘engineer’ is an excellent start. To be an engineer we must be strenuous in our standards. We must build for the future. We must be creators and thinkers. I want to see the job Developer be equal to Engineer. Then and only then will I be happy to let loose the code we craft to gracefully intertwine it’s automagical logic into the fabric of the modern world. And I – rather marvellously – finally get my job title in dropdown boxes everywhere!