What Are We Saying When We Say 'Professional'?

Ana Ulin 😻 on November 19, 2018

I hear people referring to “professionalism” — “he is being unprofessional”, or “she always acts professionally” — and yet I don’t think we rea... [Read Full]
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This is a really interesting post. Before I was a software developer, I worked as a licensed civil engineer. When I think about what is "professional", my former work informs my thoughts.

Certain types of work involve public trust and accountability. As a Civil Engineer, if I was acting "professionally" I was contributing to that trust. If I was acting "unprofessionally" I was deteriorating that trust. Ideally this would mean--if I tell the truth and deliver a safe design that is professional, if I lie to the client, take bribes, deliver a sloppy design that is unprofessional.

But people use shortcuts to make judgements, so the evaluation often comes down to "do you conform to my idea of an engineer?" This others people unnecessarily and is counterproductive.

So when I think "professional" now, I ask myself if the person is acting like their work matters, if they would be proud to put their name on their work, and if what they are doing is ethically sound. But you are right, that is not necessarily what others will hear if I use that word.


I really like using the lens of being reliable and trustworthy. I think you're right that this is what is really at the core of the idea of being "professional".


A friend told me, "if you charge for what you do, you are a professional".


That was going to be my definition. Literally, if you get paid to do something, that makes you "professional".


For me, professionalism has a very simple definition. It means to not get caught up in the turmoil of the current situation (server on fire, customer yelling at me, being passed over for promotion, etc.), but instead to stay focused doing the job.

In the above examples with the server on fire, it would be unprofessional for me to say nothing/go home, leaving someone else to deal with it. The professional thing to do would be to hit the fire alarm and follow fire safety procedures. If a customer was yelling at me, the obvious unprofessional response is to yell back, to join in the tantrum. A professional might ignore the yelling and focus on solving their problem. Or if not possible, politely tell them to call back later. In being passed over, the unprofessional might retaliate in various ways. But the professional keeps doing their job well. (It is not unprofessional to discretely look for another job if this is a pattern. It is professional to give adequate notice rather than walk out.)

Professionalism does not mean to sacrifice all other aspects of life for your job, or to suppress all your emotions, or that you can't have friends at work, or that you should treat your co-workers coldly. It simply means that for the time you are at work the priority should be performing the profession. In our business, that can often mean a lot of collaboration and learning unfamiliar perspectives to solve a problem. Professionalism is not about me.

Now professionalism as I have defined here is not easy. I have missed the mark many times, especially when I first entered the work force. It takes practice.

  1. You work few years and feel that you are professional already.
  2. Real life humbles you down to the point when you got depression and lost all your confidence (for years).
  3. You somehow continue learning and working and one day you feel that you probably can be considered as a professional in some specific area. Now you have the right and experience to be called a professional.

This process can take 5-10 years or so.

Sorry for mistakes, if any.

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