Why Don’t Software Engineers Get More Respect?

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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.

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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.”

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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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12 Responses to “Why Don’t Software Engineers Get More Respect?”

  1. I think there should be an article why Desktop Support does not get any respect. Being a Desktop support we are in the front lines of computer issues that users have. It’s our job to make sure the computer works and the users can do their job. It’s a thankless job, does not pay a living wage, and we’re constantly getting yelled at by users and management. I don’t understand why companies pay so little for such an important job.

  2. Joe Smith

    This is confusing. Why is a longer harder interview a sign of lack of respect? I’ve gone to many interviews as a Senior Developer where all the questions focused around a culture fit. I never take those job, because the tech is always bad.

    J, help desk doesn’t get respect because it is basically tech support. Most that do it don’t even have a degree. I did tech support for a year, when I first got my CS degree. Many companies I worked for don’t even hire help desk. If you don’t know how to use a computer they won’t hire you, so they don’t need help desk.

    • Steven Knudsen

      Apparently, the technical interview questions were a backhanded lack of respect because of the assumption that the software engineer didn’t know enough tech. Note that it’s critical that ultimately s/he was rejected, and with panache. If not, then a better interpretation is that the interviewer was doing due diligence. It’s apparent that one individual made the “system” show a lack of respect. I remember an interview where I was shown an exit which led to a skyscraper staircase. Ever since, I have avoided the sorts of tech jobs where offers are based on “twenty questions” type interviews.

  3. Michael O. Church sez the reason software engineers get no respect is because they don’t play politics (or do so less than almost any other profession). Michael O. Church writes very persuasive, very well-researched posts on this, and I’m inclined to believe him.

    • I agree. As a technical contributor I was under the delusion that my work spoke for me and that I didn’t need to stoop to playing politics. I was proven wrong and now the sycophants are still employed and I am not.

  4. Reduction of respect for software engineers coincided with the beginning of off/in-shoring. Trainloads of fresh-out-of-schools “consultants” flooded the market often possessing zero professional zero technical and zero business skills. Why would business respect such people? People with skills and business knowledge got pushed away by cheaper by the dozens H1B contractors. They either moved to other industries or made transition to the business side. Either way, they do not respect the IT anymore.
    These so called H1B consultants claimed expertise but in numerous instances provided detrimental results. Why should the business respect that? Software Engineers are no longer called engineers – just resources.

    • The engineering population is referred to as “head count” … as if ready to be lopped off. How about
      “FTE’s” — full time equivalents … as if they are machines or robots. Anything to distract from the reality that these are real people that management is so quick to dispense with. One of my few liberal arts instructors at my engineering school spelled out this same concept over 40 years ago: “technical types don’t get any respect, only management types”. Never mind that the people who couldn’t hack engineering switched over to a business / management path. Dumb managers rejoice when they get to fire smart engineers or developers — makes them feel like they are earning their management keep.

  5. I completely agree. I’m a software developer. And I recently told my daughter that there are two types of people in the world; people that ‘do’, and people that ‘talk’. And the people that can talk rule the world. I suggested she focus part of her education on leaning out to talk to people and courses that support that.

    • This is so true. It’s really scary how unintelligent most of the “talkers” are and they do indeed “rule the roost”. Even when their words and promises prove to be false with time, they seem to be immune from any kind of accountability.

  6. Charlie Chan

    The reason they don’t get as much respect as they should is because so many candidates lie about their qualifications. There are a lot of candidates that say they are experts on X, Y, Z, but when tested, it’s obvious they know very little. And half of the people on LinkedIn lie about having a degree when they don’t actually have one. If it were illegal to lie, half of the candidates would be in jail. So the hiring manager never knows if they are dealing with a talented candidate, or another liar.

    • Johnathan Emanuel

      This is true to some extent but the other half of the time its the job postings themselves that are a bit off I’ve seen postings where companies want Candidates with numerous years of “experience” (6 or more) in skill set A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H when in actuality all you really need is 2 years “experience” In skills A and B. Its partly because of the loose definition of “experience” that causes people to “lie” 6 years experience at company A may only amount to 1 to 2 at Company B. If companies would stop expecting candidates to hit the ground running and spend more time actually training them you wouldn’t need to worry about who is “lying”and who isn’t. Not saying your wrong of course people do just flat out lie, but sometimes it really does boil down to how one company actually interprets “experience”

  7. Just came across this post , and just want to mention a side note . The days are coming to an ultimate end when Software Engineers were not given the respect they deserve. The world is slow but surely coming into our grips and sooon We will be the ones running the planet openly as of today lets enjoy the behind sense !!!!.