October 26, 2002

Programmers are Like Attorneys

Programmers are like attorneys. They know a lot about the law, but don’t know much about their client’s domain. They learn new domains every time they take a new case. Over time, they may cultivate specialties, as they develop more expertise in a particular area.

Still, their attitude is “Have Law, Will Travel” (talk about dating yourself).

People think that a good lawyer can litigate anything, or that a good programmer can hack anything. Both statements could not be further from the truth. You'd not want to hire a probate lawyer to defend against a drug charge, nor a union pension fund disbursement programmer to write a realtime data acquisition system.

It takes years to master the law, but mere mastery of the law is often not enough. One must also know as much about the domain being litigated as a denizen of that domain.

Like lawyers, we spend years acquiring arcane expertise in realms like programming languages, and optimization techniques. Once we hang out our shingles and begin to practice our trade, business rules, medical details, or even rocket science must become our stocks in trade as well.

Like lawyers, what programmers do is often misunderstood, and both professions have found themselves the targets of derision, even contempt. Garbage Collection guru Henry Baker once likened the role lawyers play in modern society to that of the samurai in ancient Japan. No one really liked having either around, he said, but if the other guys had theirs, you had to have yours, and whoever had the most, or the best, would probably prevail.

Another attribute that programmers once shared with the legal profession was decent compensation. Sigh. And a modicum of prestige. Sigh. Some of the last of the secular priesthoods.

Both engage in a level of face-to-face interaction with their customers that resist attempts at outsourcing. The work products of both exhibit a custom, one-of-a-kind character.

Both adhere to rigid dress codes, and work irregular hours.

Posted by foote at October 26, 2002 08:05 PM