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Professionalism - what is that?

The first big problem is right at the beginning: there is no fixed definition. Most people consider a professional the scientist who gets published in the Nature or a similar journal, likewise an artist having his personal exhibition in some gallery in Soho or Manhattan. But what if the researcher makes a mistake and sends his manuscript to a blatantly wrong journal (say, writing a paper on cell biology to an educational technology journal)? Or the artist attempts to have another exhibition featuring his famous Oriental-themed nudes - but this time in Tehran? While the scientist will likely lose his credibility, the artist will be in danger of losing his life.

The problem is in that the line between professional and amateurish (or dilettante) is very difficult to draw, so is to find the norms or criteria used to define professionalism. It is not success in business - many groundbreaking things have met modest or no success, some have altogether unusual business models. Neither is it money - many people have grown rich with idiotic ideas, and the likely best-earning band in the former Soviet Estonia was the one who played decidedly "simple" music targetting retired people in countryside. It not fame either - of ancient Roman Emperors, history has equally well preserved Augustus and Caesar vs Nero and Caligula.

Thus calling something or someone professional we can just mean that the object meets the criteria applicable in certain time, place and context. Yet, there are some qualities most people agree being "professional".

Let's look at three surgeons.

Surgeon 1 has been doing a certain difficult surgery in his clinic for years, making lots of money. Surgeon 2 masters all standard procedures and has also invented some new procedures, but it has taken time and he makes less than Surgeon 1. Surgeon 3 has also developed a new method and practices it regularly, but finds also time to travel and promote it among his colleagues.

Most doctors will probably call Surgeon 3 the most professional of the three. He - works with the state of the art - pushes it forward with new inventions - promotes and teaches his developments

Interestingly enough, these qualities apply also in other fields, including IT.

Another question is: how are competencies and professionalism related? Can one be competent yet not professional - or vice versa? What if the Surgeon 3 of our example dresses weird, stinks, swears or harasses people, still meeting the criteria above? What if there is another surgeon who dresses well, is likable and polite, and also almost meets the criteria, but not quite? And if you have to employ one, which one would you prefer?

A bit of psychology

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, has written in his 1990 bookFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience [1] about a phenomenon that is actually know for a long time in Eastern cultures (e.g. it is used in various martial arts) but he serves it in a way that is understandable for Western people. His concept of flow stands for a concentrated, dedicated state of mind where the person "diffuses" with the task at hand.

A good figure is available here. According to it, a task given to a person must suit to his/her skill level - a too difficult one causes helplessness and a too easy one breeds arrogance, real mastery is achieved only "flying high". According to the author, three conditions must be met:

  1. the task must have clear goals and structure
  2. feedback must be clear and immediate
  3. the perceived difficulty level of the task must be comparable to one's perceived skill level

In another of his books, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention [2], he deals with development of creativity. In addition of the flow, he outlines the difference between two ways of thinking:

  • convergent - assumes that the problem at hand has the one and only correct answer or solution
  • divergent - assumes that several solutions are possible, leaving room for new ideas and solutions

In addition, Csíkszentmihályi outlines other interesting factors about creativity, making him a good read to IT people as well

The IT Pro: 1985 vs 20xx

Back in the 80s, most software was produced in so-called software houses, not unlike canned meat - it was processed, packaged and distributed via traditional channels. On the other hand, the finished proprietary software product was a bit similar to a new car coming out of the production line, containing the work of a number of workers. Thus, the software engineer of the time had not much freedom - originality was even frowned upon, as innovation came down from the upper management (or in some cases, a separate R&D department). A software worker also could not share his work with others - it was a proprietary product involving trade secrets. Thus, the IT pro was more or less a well-paid, highly qualified craftsman (and according to our surgeon example, not a real professional). The only exceptions were academic institutions which had retained some of the hacker ethos of old; but academy did not compete with large corporations.

Nowadays, we have two competing paradigms. We still have the old model epitomized by the likes of Gates, Jobs, Ellison and others. But we also have another model in FLOSS (Free, Libre and Open-Source Software). The luninaries of this school (Torvalds, Perens, Raymond, Shuttleworth and others) actually are more in semblance of the surgeon 3 in our example - they embody state of the art, push it further and spread the knowledge. Granted, a vital component here has been the rapidly growing Internet.

Another interesting question is: how does the Linus' Law (actually, in the second meaning of the term) relate to professionalism? On the one hand, FLOSS has a number of people who have reached the third level (fun) that can be also interpreted as the highest level of professional ethos. Yet in the traditional sense, they are amateurs - they do not get paid for the work.

Corporation Community
Management, hierarchy, authority Consensus, anarchy, meritocracy
Product Service
Trade secrets Freedom of information
Support Discussion
Selling products Selling know-how

Traditional vs network enterprise

There are some fundamental differences. At the former, the structure is set, at the latter it is shaped dynamically according to skills, abilities and contribution of participants. At the former, profit is made from products, at the latter, selling the brains (know-how) and services. For the former, information is the property that is distributed to customers as needed (in the form of support services). The other model is based on information freedom and inclusion, with no fixed line between developers and consumers.

As mentioned, the emergence of FLOSS has also challenged the existing concepts of professionalism. In many community projects, professional developers may also cross over to complementary, amateur roles - e.g. as artists, designers, animators, writers... Yet, the results may be (and often are) on par with professionals (examples include fan fiction, fan films, fan art etc which all have ample examples online). And probably the best indicator is the end user who most of the time does not care about the development or business model, but wants a quality product.

When looking at the surgeon example in the context of FLOSS, the second criterion can sometimes be an issue - if the project goal has been just to provide an alternative to product X, the team may opt for not pushing the limits further (however, opposite examples can also be found). Knowledge transfer, however, almost universally exceeds proprietary counterparts. In the FLOSS culture it is customary that when a project stalls, its leaders have a moral obligation to find successors - abandonware does exist, but is less common than in the proprietary world. A good example is Emacs - started in 1975, it has had nearly a dozen of project leaders and reached the version of 24.5, being still in active development and use.

Diploma, certificate or experience?

IT started up as elite - for a long time, computer science and rocket science sounded alike for commoners. Professors and researchers built computers. Internet was founded by engineers with academic background. A diploma (or at least striving to acquire one) was more or less a requirement for access.

With the advent of minicomputers and later PCs, computers moved to homes. At first, vocational certificates were founded as all applications of computing did not require a degree anymore. Even later, a whole generation of IT people grew up by their home PC-s - they valued practical experience and 'down-to-earth' knowledge. Some of them became successful entrepreneurs, but much more became craftsmen (as mentioned above).

With the 90s, the trend started to reverse again. On the one hand, rapid development resulted in higher requirements, on the other hand, IT got mixed with all possible disciplines - narrow vocational skills were not enough anymore, education was needed. And in the coming age of Internet and community-based models, social skills were added to the mix.

Note: in Estonia, the same processes were evident, but with a slight delay caused by the nasty phenomenon called the USSR. Thus, the PC generation of self-made men rose to prominence during the early 90s, the move back to academic education stated around the millennium.

Communication, once more

An often-overlooked component of professionalism, this has several components

  • mastery of language - including one's mother tongue (it is not self-evident!) and, especially today, a number of foreign ones.
  • mastery of terminology - throrough knowledge of technical vocabulary.
  • mastery of style - including ability to pass as 'one of our own' for different trades and social strata.

It is especially important in community-based models bringing together diverse people with various backgrounds and skillsets. An insensitive joke or dirty word can result in a profound disruption of communication worsened by some features of online communication (as seen some topics earlier). So more than often, a social person with just OK technical skills is preferred over a superhacker having difficulty communicating.

An example of a Code of Conduct

The Association of Information Technology Professionals has attempted to define the ethical qualities of an IT professional. While being quite declarative, these points are presented in four different views and offer rather good insight. And while the FLOSS way would change some points, the majority will still stand.

Some more recommendations

  • Study diligently (that's elementary, Watson...)
  • Learn foreign languages (the more the better)
  • Know different platforms and standards in hard- and software (having preferences is OK)
  • Go to student exchange
  • Participate in a community project or two
  • Join a professional association (starting a local chapter is especially cool). Two largest ones also having student memberships are IEEE Computer Society and ACM, but there are others.
  • Obtain some professional certificates (Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, various certs on Linux...).


Professionalism is more than just a set of vocational skills - a true professional also knows how to convey information effectively (especially as context can play much bigger a role than before).

The breakthrough of Internet and resulting new models (development, distribution, business...) have also influenced the concept of professionalism.

A today's pro has a much wider base than some decades ago: in addition to his tech skills, he has to master basics of economy, social communication, presentation and a number of other things. Thus we reach the same two concepts as at the topic information society: a) good, well-rounded education and b) adaptability.