I happened to catch a few seconds of the TV show "Come Dine With Me" a few weeks ago. The rather attractive young woman hosting the dinner challenged her guests to guess her profession. There was some consideration that she worked as a designer in the fashion industry, in PR, sales or marketing. Someone even suggested she might be a model!
There was a look of shock and dismay when she finally revealed, "I work in IT.". Cue audible gasps of disbelief! In one of the video asides, a flabbergasted guest gasps, "I just can't believe she'd do something so... boring!"
We can dismiss that kind of opinion as mere ignorance of course. The negative reaction of the guests (both male and female) may be partly explained by a conscious or unconscious bias against women taking careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
The problem isn't uncommon.
STEM professions such as engineering, applied sciences and IT in particular seem to have a huge image problem. Whereas with other professions it may just be the career seen in a negative way, with STEM the generalisations extend to the actual personality and character of the people in the field as well.
This has serious knock-on effects not just on the life and career options of people in the field, but impacts on the recruitment and attraction of new talent. We often hear about gender and diversity disparities in STEM courses in secondary and tertiary education.
So it's not just that engineering is boring, but also that engineers are boring. People who have to devote a lot of their career time studying and updating their knowledge and skills are labelled as geeks or nerds, seen as uniformly socially awkward, boring and somehow different to 'normal' people. (Medicine, arguably the most obvious applied science seems to have escaped this, possibly because the relationship between general population and healthcare is so obvious and utilitarian.)
The popular depiction of scientists and engineers in films and television doesn't help.
The irony of course, is that today we are literally cocooned on an individual and societal level by the the product of centuries upon centuries of scientific progress. The human race has never been as scientifically advanced or as dependent on technology and it's outcomes as it is today.
During the last year we waited with impatience for scientists to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, and to guide our politicians through the pandemic so we could finally resume normality within this technological protective bubble.
We take the devices and systems around us for granted: "IT is so boring" says the person tapping on the screen of his or her smartphone. That same person may queue overnight outside a store to get the latest phone or game console. Irony?
Yet in spite of the sometimes clear negativity, I love what I do. The technical knowledge and application of skills are necessary of course, but ultimately these are just the tools of my trade. The real currency is... creativity.
The idea that STEM and software development is creative may surprise people who are dismissive of these professions as being fundamentally uncreative and driven purely by some kind of uncompromising robotic logic.
Yet those in STEM know that it is inherently creative. Yes, we have to regulate our flights of fancy with facts and the realities of the rules of our chosen discipline. However, we also often do have to try things out - to experiment, build prototypes and test. We have to think outside the box, innovate and consider alternative options and designs. We have to work with people and the environment to find the balance between what works 'in the messy real world' vs the perfect technical solution.
For me ultimately, the service I offer and deliver is a sum of the technical expertise, the creativity, the experience I have gained through work on numerous projects, and the knowledge of how people interact with software.
Last year I was offered the opportunity to leave software application development behind, to pursue a new career even though I would still have remained within IT. After some thought I couldn't do it. The nature of the work I do as a software developer connects me with people, businesses and their lives in a way where I believe I can make a positive difference.
I couldn't leave that behind.