26 February 2010

Professionalism versus Passion?

What is it to be a professional, and is passion enough for doing a good job? What do those words mean anyway? That's what came to mind from reading Mark Dennehy's The case against passion and Soon Hui's Passion Does Not Mean Total Indifference of Other Things.

My first response would be that passion is not enough, and that professionalism is required above passion. Passion is necessary, but insufficient (and same for professionalism). We should be careful with first impressions though, so let's take a closer look at what it means to be passionate, professional, or both.


Now by passion, I mean the long lasting, enduring kind of fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for something; not the brief, fleeting, transient kind of euphoria. Defining passion is fairly easy: just look it up.

To understand professionalism is a bit harder because it has multiple meanings dependent on context, and may apply even where the word is traditionally not used. This is clear just by looking it up on Wikipedia (unfortunately, the dictionary definition is even less useful for me in this case).

I'll dismiss the sports usage since I'm not an athlete, and since Mark and Soon Hui are talking about programming. Clearly a master tradesperson could be called a professional, but programming, requiring more mental work, doesn't seem like a trades to me (Is that a fair categorization though? Perhaps not?).

In any case, it seems at least some (most?) programming is more like engineering, especially as there are computer and software engineers. So perhaps we should import the intuition behind what it means to be a professional engineer into what it means for a programmer to possess professionalism.

Again, we look that up, but this time on the Professional Engineers Ontario website, which has a useful and short answer. What stands out to me is the condition that the work done has an element "wherein the safeguarding of life, health, property or the public welfare" is involved, and even more importantly:
Like medical or legal professionals, professional engineers...are accountable for their work. Their duty is to serve and protect the public welfare where engineering is concerned. Professional engineers subscribe to a strict code of ethics and practice standards. [1]
Does that sound like the kind of work programmers do? It sure does of those programmers who work on the drive-by-wire software for Toyota's cars, and those who work on the software inside radiation therapy devices (recall the Therac-25s). They are, or ought to be, accountable for their work in terms of their moral duty to serve and protect the public welfare where their programs are concerned.

With the thought that people could die by your code in mind, I see no problems with a definition of professionalism where it only applies to, say, x% of programmers for some small x (x = 20 maybe?). The "vocational programmers," the other 100-x%, should be happy they're not professional in the above sense: after all, they can leave work knowing they're not accounting for people's lives.

That's not to say passion isn't important. In fact, to remain professional, a professional has to have the passion for what they're doing so they would continue to learn and upgrade what they know. I wouldn't trust a doctor who stopped caring for the latest advances in medicine, for example, or who stopped having a passion for the latest techniques and protocols.

So we come back to what I meant by passion: the long lasting, enduring kind of fondness, enthusiasm, or desire. Clearly a professional has to have that to remain a professional in the long run. They probably need persistence, talent, and a focus on the process too.

And what about passion of the brief, fleeting, and transient kind? If that's all the programmer, engineer, doctor, teacher, or lawyer has, then even if they begin as professionals, they probably won't stay professional for very long.

That's the problem with stressing passion over professionalism. At least within the English I hear and read, the word "passion" has more and more been associated with a brief, fleeting, transient kind of euphoria. Programming, and I might add anything worthwhile, is not all about that kind of transient passion.

On the other hand, if the long lasting, enduring kind of passion is a necessary part of professionalism, then we get the best of passion by stressing professionalism more. Of course stressing professionalism brings along more than just enduring passion, but also the ethics and accountability typical of professions like law, education, and medicine — which seems like a good idea to me.

Professionalism also conjures up in my mind being disciplined, but maybe that's another post [2].

[1] I should add that this is also applicable, with the necessary parts altered, to education professionals (ie, professional educators).

[2] The word "professionalism" also conjures up in my mind the creed of the NCO. Note the same emphasis on ethics, accountability, and technical competence. Note the curious absence of the word "passion," and yet in my mind, the focus on pride, accomplishment, and loyalty brings up more passion than the word "passion" could.

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