The Software Glass Ceiling: Career Path?

This is a somewhat old article (2006), but it eludes to something that I have found a bit bothersome about attitudes regarding software engineering career paths.

I recently interviewed for a Business Analyst position with the CIO of a large multi-national software development firm. This man was in charge of the company’s worldwide IT operations, including offshore development projects, for which he was searching for qualified Business Analysts. The interview quickly became a casual conversation about current trends within the IT service sector, how the company was planning to take advantage of those trends, and, most importantly, how I could fit into those plans. It was during his evaluation of my skills that I asked how I fit and whether it was technical or business skills that were most valuable to his projects. The CIO summed up his advice about my career path with one small sentence: “Stay on the business side.”

The author goes on to state:

My job searches have suggested that business and systems analysts with a good programming background and a high-level of “business savvy” are becoming the next hot ticket. More and more organizations are finally hiring business analysts to explore, record, and recommend systems that fit the business—as opposed to the other way around.

While I agree with what the author is trying to say here, I think he missed the point. And the CIO quoted above is severely mistaken… Sure, you can train anyone to “be technical” and write a program, but you cannot train those people to do it well. There is a big   huge critical difference between a software developer and a good software developer. I first observed this in college, when some of my classmates loved working on programming assignments and performed very well on such things, while others fumbled through the simplest assignments, unable to get their code to compile, much less work.

Why were such people majoring in computer science? I’m not sure, but its probably because they thought they liked computers and would therefor like programming, or maybe because they heard it would make for a good career.

I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but I (like many others in my field) didn’t realize that software engineering may be a good career until I was well into my Computer Science major. I started writing simple programs in the 6th grade, going to the library and checking out every single computer and computer programming book I could find. Later, after I had read all of the books that the small local public library had on the subject, I discovered Nibble magazine (also available at the library). Every good/great programmer I know is someone who landed in the career because it was something that he was drawn to naturally, and most of these people began at a young age. These are the people who write software because they like it, and this is why they are good at it.

Anyway, at one point, after being frustrated that my library didn’t have any more computer programming books to read, I found a strangely titled book that had been misplaced next to a book about Applesoft BASIC: The Peter Principle.  I checked it out, if only because I thought the title was funny, and I took it home and read it–all of it! I was probably the only 7th grader in the world to ever read the book, which by that time was already very dated. The closest I had ever come to the corporate world by that point in my life was delivering newspapers. I was a fairly competent paperboy, and even if I wasn’t, failing as a paperboy doesn’t lend itself to a very clear path of promotion. That said, the wisdom of The Peter Principle was lost on me.

Little did I know that years later this strange book would be remembered much more vividly than the Applesoft BASIC book that I had checked out dozes of times.

The CIO, probably much older, wiser and richer than me, missed something major: Anyone can write code, but do you want just anyone making important technical decisions that can make or break your project, department or company? I didn’t think so either. Not just anyone can write good code. I’ve seen the results of software written by cheap labor… Indeed, I’ve rewritten code written by cheap labor!

I think there is a very obvious career path for software developers, and it doesn’t necessarily involve moving into a role that no longer includes hands-on software development. I disagree that upper management doesn’t realize this. I think in many organizations they do. I intend to write more on this subject…

[Career Paths for Programmers by John Bennett, Jr. - developer., Developer Dot Star]

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