Not many people would argue that technology isn’t central to business nowadays. It’s hard to imagine any kind of company of any size operating without some kind of technical system in place to support it—if not drive it. So why don’t software engineers get more respect?
That’s what TechCrunch columnist Jon Evans was thinking about the other day. What got him going was a blog post by Michael O. Church, a software engineer who blogged about how differently he was treated when interviewing for a senior software engineer job compared to a VP of Data Science position.
As an engineering candidate, he faced five grueling technical interviews and was arbitrarily vetoed by the last interviewer. As a managerial candidate, he essentially chatted his way through behavioral questions–and was offered a lucrative position with a generous relocation package. Church argues that this difference is because engineers have low social status, whereas even managerial candidates, one they’ve proven they can talk the talk, are viewed as equals.
Evans’ theory is that engineers are treated this way because they’re viewed as “idiot savants”: They know how to make technology work, but don’t understand business. The important decisions, the thinking goes, are made by, well, business people: analysts, product people, MBAs. Those folks “might throw money our way, but they don’t take our opinions seriously,” Evans writes, “at least not the ones they understand.”
Evans argues that engineers make plenty of business decisions every day: Deciding the size of a database field, for instance, or a data type. Those types of choices impact the business, admittedly in a micro way, but taken together they form the product or system that the business people spend so much time thinking about. And good engineers don’t make decisions in a vacuum—they know their work is a part of the greater business.
Ironically, it’s the business side’s need to have “blind faith” in the software engineer that leads to this dynamic, says Evans. A company that doesn’t understand engineers isn’t going to respect them. Which, he points out, makes little sense in a business world that’s as technically driven as today’s. “If you’re an engineer who’s treated as automatically lesser than a business graduate or MBA, or worst of all, treated as a cloistered savant, that’s a warning sign,” he says. “Consider your future carefully if so.”
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