Unprofessional Behavior

Jeffrey Wammes is a Dutch gymnast who was not selected for the Olympic Games. His (former) coach said on TV that Jeffrey did not behave like a professional. Jeffrey, not surprisingly, doesn’t agree. He considers himself a professional, because he has done all that is reasonably required, including training, certification, and intensive practice. Nevertheless, his own coach said he was not a professional…

Some people behave like professionals, sometimes even without official titles or certificates. Some of my suppliers and business partners come to mind. And my spouse. And my housekeeper. And plenty of Agile practitioners. Let’s call them Type 1 professionals.

Other people just say they are professionals, because they have official titles and certificates. Because an authority, at some point in time, judged them to be professionals. But their actual behaviors sometimes indicate otherwise. Let’s call them Type 2 professionals.

Some people say they are professionals and they behave as such. Awesome! I wish everyone was that straightforward. Let’s call them Type 3 professionals.

Behaving Like a Professional

The attributes of a person can tell me things such as gender, age, education, nationality, shoe size, etc. These are simple observable facts. But the attributes of a person tell me nothing about professionalism. Simply having a profession (for example, getting paid to be a gymnast) does not mean that a person is a professional (being a “professional” gymnast). Well, at least not for me.

I know the dictionary allows for multiple interpretations of the word “professional”, either requiring behaviors (Type 1), or requiring status (Type 2), or both (Type 3). I dislike Type 2 because I think status should be earned, which requires showing the right attitude. One does not need to be a mental gymnast to understand that status alone is not very helpful.

For me, what counts is how people actually behave (Types 1 and 3). So, you have a title or certificate? Great! Let’s talk. You may be one step ahead of others. But I will ultimately judge you for what you really do. Not for what you claim to be.

Last week on Twitter I summarized that opinion as follows:

Nobody _is_ a professional. But any person can choose to behave like one.

I tweeted it 20 seconds after the idea emerged in my head. It is how I use Twitter sometimes: as an outlet for my brain barf. Anyone is free to read it, ignore it, or question it.

Making Sense of Nonsense

Dave Snowden decided to do the latter. I received a reply from Dave saying, “It was a nice soundbite, but it doesn't stand up to even a superficial examination.”

At first Dave did not care to explain why the tweet “didn’t stand up”. It is a kind of feedback he has employed several times with me and others. He just says the “language is wrong”, or there is “superficial understanding”, without bothering to supply a useful explanation. (It is hard to learn to become a professional, when all you hear is, “It’s not good enough”.) After I pointed out the unprofessional nature of the criticism, Dave said he would publish a reply on his blog, which he did some days ago.

Dave Snowden’s post says people are professionals because of their training, certification, and practice (Type 3). He writes:

It’s good if people choose to behave in a professional manner, but they need to be one first.

And he warns as follows:

Behaving like a professional smacks of a superficial con trick, pretending to be something without putting in the effort to acquire the necessary skills and experience.

I believe the key ingredient here is practice. Without the right behaviors (which is about regular practice) a person cannot be considered a professional. Anyone who has just received a driver’s license is not a “professional” driver. Insurance companies know this. Car rental agencies too.

It took me four years to earn my certificate as a software engineer. But when I finished I was definitely not a “professional” software engineer, even though the dictionary would have allowed me to use that qualification (Type 2). It took me years of practice to learn the right behaviors (Type 3). And I know some Agilists who did not study software engineering, but behave like professionals in every possible way (Type 1).

For example, I don’t consider software engineers who don’t understand and practice TDD to be professionals. No matter how many university degrees they have.

Dave Snowden’s comment that people can “pretend to be a professional without putting in effort to acquire experience” (Type 2) makes perfect sense, but not as a reply to my tweet! It is exactly this required effort that I see as part of the right behaviors. We mean almost the same thing! So what, exactly, is Dave disagreeing with?

Of course, my tweet-sized soundbite contained a logical error. How can you behave like a professional when professionals don’t really exist? Well, duh! The irony of the tweet itself was the reason why I sent it in the first place. It was probably also the reason why it was retweeted a few dozen times. Apparently, some people actually “got it”. Playing with language is required practice for any aspiring professional author…

Unprofessional Feedback

From various earlier encounters I noticed Dave Snowden doesn’t disagree so much with my messages (though he finds them superficial). What he usually disagrees with is my approach to disseminating ideas, referring to it as “a magpie stealing shiny objects”, “heavy on marketing, light on theory”, “lack of thinking” and “being a sensitive little flower”.

It is a style of feedback I would not associate with a professional researcher. You are a professional when you behave like one.

Oh, and it is not true that I’m “sensitive to criticism”. (You can check this with my reviewers.) However, I am sensitive to feedback that is badly delivered. Such as, “You don’t understand,” without any meaningful explanation. I judge this to be unprofessional criticism.

Naturally, I am voicing my own opinions here. I suggest you make up your own mind by following Dave on Twitter and reading his blog. It’s well worth it, if your brain, like mine, is athletic enough to read around the language.

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