[SIGCIS-Members] Programmer vs. coder vs. sofware developer vs. software engineer

Brian L. Stuart blstuart at bellsouth.net
Tue May 5 14:35:52 PDT 2020


 I can't help but be reminded about one place I worked
for a number of years. Roughly every couple of years
my title would change, more from corporate policies
than anything else, I think. The funny part is it kept
getting longer. By the time I was caught up in a massive
layoff, I think it was something like Chief Engineering
Specialist/Principle (or maybe that was the penultimate
one). To be honest, these days the only title I think
of for myself is Doctor. That one is earned; industrial
titles always seem to be bestowed by business people
for business reasons. I don't think I ever used a title
in the last industrial position I had. The founder liked
the idea of following the Bell Labs model where everone
was a member of the technical staff. When some wanted
something different, he offered to let them make up
their own. There's one guy I know whose business
cards say Coreboot High Priest, if I remember correctly.

BLS



     On Tuesday, May 5, 2020, 04:29:27 PM EDT, Janet Abbate <abbate at vt.edu> wrote:  
 
 Hi Bill,  

I have a chapter that deals with these issues in my book Recoding Gender (the “software crisis” chapter). Basically I argue that all the names in use were laden with questionable assumptions about the nature of the work, and that titles were often chosen for strategic purposes rather than as a straightforward description of the work and its level of skill and responsibility. In addition to “coder," one of the other early job titles was “mathematician,” which has very different connotations for the same work. Grace Hopper described her employers as inventing a title for her that would be impressive enough to fit the salary she was earning. I actually had the same experience back in my programming days; my boss told me I would get the title "Programmer/Analyst" to match my salary, not because I was suddenly going to be doing “analysis.” I’m particularly skeptical about the term “software engineer”: while it does emphasize some important skills in terms of collaborative processes and quality control, it also devalues some important skills involving understanding the user’s requirements and working with them (and of course there is a gender dimension to this). And as you note, the term has become almost generic nowadays. 

I do agree with you that the issues of training, competence and responsibility are important ones to raise. I’m just not convinecd that it’s necessary or even possible to link those reliably with job titles for programmers. 

The reason for the resurgence of “coder” for high-end programming jobs is an interesting question. I wonder if it’s a deliberate and ironic downgrading, like wearing a hoodie to work instead of an IBM-style suit? A sort of “we don’t need status symbols” statement?  

best regards,
Janet

Dr. Janet Abbate
Professor, Science, Technology and Society
Virginia Tech
Co-director, VT National Capital Region STS program
liberalarts.vt.edu/sts
www.facebook.com/VirginiaTechSTS
https://sites.google.com/vt.edu/stsconnect/

> On May 5, 2020, at 3:50 PM, McMillan, William W <william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu> wrote:
> 
> Thanks to those who sent suggestions for background info on this topic!
> 
> My own interest in the history of computing is really more about understanding the present, and my concern about the use and misuse of professional titles, though informed by history, leads to questions such as:
> 
> - Why do we call programmers and software developers coders nowadays, when that term has long been used to label those with quite limited intellectual involvement in software development, and even considered to be carrying out a clerical task (as explained well in Nathan's book)?
> 
> - Why do we apply the term software engineer to those who can program, but who really know very little about software engineering in the broader sense?
> 
> To me this suggests that our society, and the enterprises that create the software we use, have extremely limited understanding of software development and what it entails. This is a failure of those of us who teach computing and software engineering and maybe of professional societies.
> 
> The risks to society are immense. Imagine if a machinist or even a self-taught tinkerer could adopt the title mechanical engineer at will and be tasked with designing the critical devices of our civilization. Or if anyone with some knowledge of biochemistry could serve as a pharmacist?
> 
> Maybe SIGCIS members don't believe that this topic belongs on this list, but I feel that historians might be better positioned to address it than many in the technical and commercial communities who are consumed by immediate demands, and who have very limited understanding of their profession's past.
> 
> OK, end of rant!
> 
> Thanks,
> Bill 
> 
> ________________________________________
> From: Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] on behalf of McMillan, William W [william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu]
> Sent: Monday, May 04, 2020 11:28 AM
> To: members at sigcis.org
> Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Programmer vs. coder vs. sofware developer vs. software engineer
> 
> Hello, SIGCIS folks.
> 
> The ruminations below might have little scholarly importance, but I think the subject is interesting at least in regard to the culture of computing.
> 
> What do we call people who design and implement computer programs?
> 
> Nowadays, the term coder is used, maybe most often. My understanding is that this used to refer to the job of translating a detailed flow chart, which was created by a programmer, into an implementation language. I.e., the coder was sort of like a human compiler who translated a detailed algorithm into a computer language like Fortran, Cobol, or assembly language. The coder didn't design algorithms.
> 
> Later, the coder dropped out of the loop and a programmer implemented algorithms directly in a computer language (possibly after creating a flow chart or pseudo-code).
> 
> The term software developer has been used, possibly implying that the job is broader than just programming, including gathering requirements, testing, and integration with existing systems.
> 
> Starting in the late 1960s, the title software engineer became common. At least initially, this implied a very broad scope, as well as specialized training in requirements analysis, system design, programming style, verification and validation, risk assessment, maintenance techniques, UI design, and other aspects of software development. I believe that Texas even licenses professional engineers in software engineering, and a detailed curriculum has been defined:
> https://www.acm.org/binaries/content/assets/education/se2014.pdf
> 
> The title software engineer implied that the person at least had a solid university course specifically in software engineering, as well as a good foundation in computer science or information systems.
> 
> The term systems analyst sometimes implies a similar role, though it might mean something more akin to requirements analysis.
> 
> Currently, anyone who writes computer programs might identify as a software engineer, even if he or she has no background beyond computer programming. Companies use the title willy-nilly. This inflates the prestige of the job, I suppose.
> 
> At the same time, we call developers coders, which to me sounds like it deflates prestige.
> 
> What professionals call themselves does matter. If a medical assistant calls himself a physician, the risks are obvious. If a physician (true software engineer) calls herself a technician (coder), then at least confusion results. Of course governments regulate the use of job titles in medical professions, while software development as it exists today is very libertarian.
> 
> Has there been much consideration of the common use of job titles in the history of computing? Certainly there's been a lot of work in the history of software engineering, programming, systems analysis, etc., but I'm asking about the use and misuse of job titles by individuals and organizations.
> 
> Thanks.
> Bill
> 
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