John Topley’s Weblog

What Do I Do?

I don’t know what I do for a living. I’m deadly serious, I don’t know what occupation to put against my name on forms, or precisely what to say when people ask me what I do. I want to say something that captures the creativity of programming or the unique thrill when the computer does something that I made it do. Saying “I work in computers” just doesn’t cut it.

I shy away from saying that I’m a software engineer, because engineers are grown-ups who are very good at maths and who studied for years at university. Neither of those apply to me, so I don’t quite feel justified in applying that moniker to myself, even though I try to approach what I do in a professional way. People who are good enough to develop software for Microsoft are software engineers and I’m just not in that league. Not yet anyway, but I’m constantly learning.

Sometimes I’ve affectionately been called a Coder, a compliment implying a Real Programmer. However, I couldn’t put it down on a form because it sounds like a clerical job and I did one of those for seven years; in all honesty, no aspect of it was as interesting as what I do now.

I work for the Civil Service in the UK, so how about calling myself a Civil Servant, as technically that’s what I am. The problem is that I’m not always civil—especially when configuring J2EE applications—and I don’t like the idea of being a servant.

A few years ago I went to a comedy club and had the misfortune of being hauled up onto the stage—along with some other members of the audience—by the comedian. He asked each of us in turn what we did for a living and I stupidly (really stupidly) said that I was a Civil Servant, and at that point I was instantly transformed into the least sexy person in the entire room. I don’t know what made me do it apart from this very dilemma over my job title that I’m describing here. Another problem with Civil Servant is that it still conjures up an image of pinstripe suits and bowler hats, neither of which I possess.

Ian Craig Marsh: Computer Programmer
A picture of Ian Craig Marsh from The Human League, later Heaven 17

Although it’s a bit old-fashioned now, I like the title Computer Programmer. To me it sounds almost futuristic in a retro, late 1970s/early 1980s kind of way. Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware were both computer programmers before they co-founded the original line-up of The Human League in 1978 and started writing slightly frightening synthesizer-backed songs about urban decay. On the other hand, Computer Programmer also sounds quite mundane and makes me think of someone feeding punch cards into a huge mainframe.

That just leaves Software Developer, which isn’t a bad description for someone whose job is to develop software. From now on I’ll be a Software Developer until a better title comes along.


There are 5 comments on this post. Comments are closed.

  • avatar John C
    04 March 2005 at 11:29

    I've always gone with 'software developer' myself because it can cover a multitude of sins without directly tying you down to a particular role. If someone "not in the business" asks for clarification I just answer with "you don't want to know"... :-)

  • avatar John Topley
    04 March 2005 at 12:14

    John, It says here that you're a "professional software engineer": ;-)

  • avatar John C
    04 March 2005 at 19:34

    Ahem. Well spotted! But when I talk to people I call myself a software developer. Honest! [Note to self: must update that page].

  • avatar Vinodh
    11 March 2005 at 03:13

    I myself have called myself whatever fancies me at that moment. Software developer, Programmer or Software Engineer. But where I come from, all I have to say is the magic word Software and they know exactly what I do for a living.

  • avatar Mr Krusty
    10 June 2005 at 17:37

    I find that 'international code pimp' usually raises a few eyebrows... then again, I'm probably being watched by MI6 now.

At that point I was instantly transformed into the least sexy person in the entire room.


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