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

Marc Weber marc at webhistory.org
Wed May 6 11:55:07 PDT 2020


Speaking of title creep, at the Computer History Museum we’ve found it amusing to see how the uses of “curator” and “to curate” have expanded in the last few years. For instance, "How to Upgrade Your Social Media Marketing Strategy as a Social Curator <https://quuu.co/blog/social-curator/>," or  “How to curate your personal style through Instagram <https://beingboss.club/articles/curate-personal-style-instagram>.”  

 “Electrician” is an old example of title creep. In the late 19th century as the first power grids were being built it was roughly equivalent to “Electrical Engineer” today, and apparently felt as mysterious and futuristic as “AI Curator <https://www.gallereo.com/blog-the-ai-curator-post-2109-55.html>” might now. W. Bernard Carlson’s biography of Tesla gives a number of contemporary examples of usage. 

Best, Marc

Marc Weber <http://www.computerhistory.org/staff/Marc,Weber/>  |   marc at webhistory.org  |   +1 415 282 6868 
Curatorial Director, Internet History Program
Computer History Museum, 1401 N Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View CA 94043
computerhistory.org/nethistory  |  Co-founder, Web History Center and Project


> On May 6, 2020, at 10:21, Janet Abbate <abbate at vt.edu> wrote:
> 
> Hi Win, 
> 
> Your mention of the “Learn to code” movement brings to mind the 2013 video by Code.org (link below), which ushered in a lot of that coding discourse. They imply that superstars like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg identify as “coders.” Maybe that helped raise the status of the term. 
> 
> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKIu9yen5nc 
> 
> best,
> 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 10:20 PM, Win Treese <treese at acm.org> wrote:
>> 
>> Hi, all. I’ve been enjoying the discussion so far.
>> 
>> I'm not a historian, but I've worked in the software world since the mid-1980s. This is personal recollection and thoughts from that experience; perhaps it is helpful.
>> 
>> From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, pretty much the only job title for people developing software that I encountered was "software engineer" in various forms. The term "developer", near as I can recall, would typically be used in the context of specific kinds of software: "Windows developer", "application developer", "UNIX developer", etc. In other words, "developer" wasn't a job title, but was just a way of categorizing by the kind of software you worked on. I was in the UNIX/workstation/systems/research parts of the world, and areas like mainframes, business applications, and PC/Windows may have had different terminology.
>> 
>> What changed things was the web, in the late 90s. The changes came in a couple of ways. First, creating web applications meant a lot of work in HTML, which doesn't seem much like writing program in C, C++, or Java. Even the server code at the time was written in "scripting languages", most commonly Perl and PHP at that time. Second, the demand for people to write those applications exploded, and it brought a lot of people into the work who didn't have a computer science background.
>> 
>> In the job market, this was kind of complicated. There was a time when someone who could work with Perl and HTML wasn't really considered to be a "software engineer". Indeed, the work practices usually didn't resemble what we normally think of as software engineering. So terms like "application developer" and "web developer" came to be used even as job titles. To some extent it was status, yet it was also trying to draw a distinction in the level of training and professional methods that different kinds of people "writing code" would use. (This was also the day of the "code monkey", doing the web work, although that has fortunately faded.)
>> 
>> This gets us into the early 2000s. Large numbers of people are now "developers" of various kinds. It's the hot area, so the terms are more in the public media, and it's a lot easier to say than "software engineer". So the term largely takes over. This accelerates as smart phones appear, and Steve Jobs gives us the term "app", which, of course, requires "app developers". Again, it's the hot thing.
>> 
>> I think this is also the time that gave us new meanings for "coding" and "coders". Writing HTML clearly wasn't "programming" in a traditional sense. But it was also important work to be done, and working with HTML is a kind of coding activity if you are willing to loosen your notion of what its. But it's also not "HTML programming". Beyond that, I suspect that for many people at the time, "programming" had negative connotations: it was hard, the people (by far mostly male, at that point) who did it were serious nerds, and so on. "Coding" was more approachable. "Coding a web application" seemed like something many people could do; "programming in C" sounded hard and mysterious.
>> 
>> As with "developer", "coding" starts to dominate. It's also easier to say than "programming" or "developing software". "Learn to code" spreads, first as a way to retrain to get a job, then as an activity for everyone. It's short and sweet, and seems like it might be accessible.
>> 
>> All of this is muddled up with status, salaries, job classification and tracks within companies, and the continued battles over which kinds of people who write software are better than others.
>> 
>> Of course, "software engineer" struggles in terms of methodology and principles when lined up against older engineering disciplines, both in terms of professional definition and the rigor of practice, but that's another story.
>> 
>> I'm sure that investigating this further would turn up a lot that I have no idea about.
>> 
>> If this is out of line/out of scope for the list, I apologize.
>> 
>> Best,
>> Win
>> 
>> Win Treese
>> treese at acm.org
>> 
>> 
>> 
>>> 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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>> 
>> _______________________________________________
>> This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. Opinions expressed here are those of the member posting and are not reviewed, edited, or endorsed by SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/ and you can change your subscription options at http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org
> 
> _______________________________________________
> This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. Opinions expressed here are those of the member posting and are not reviewed, edited, or endorsed by SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/ and you can change your subscription options at http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org



Marc Weber <http://www.computerhistory.org/staff/Marc,Weber/>  |   marc at webhistory.org  |   +1 415 282 6868 
Internet History Program Curatorial Director, Computer History Museum            
1401 N Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View CA 94043 computerhistory.org/nethistory <http://computerhistory.org/nethistory>
Co-founder, Web History Center and Project, webhistory.org 

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