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Strong opinions, weakly held

Starting at the bottom

Greg Beeman’s Heroes blog had an interview with writer Chris Zatta called “Living the Dream.” Zatta has worked as a writers assistant on the show this season, and wound up getting a writing credit for episode 18 of the show, which is apparently quite unusual. He broke in, as many do in the television and film industry, as a production assistant. Here’s how he describes the work:

Photocopying. Getting lunches for the producers. Getting coffee. Getting breakfast for the cast. Delivering scripts to people’s homes at night.

And what does the writers assistant do?

There’s a big table. Eleven writers. And they all come in every day, around ten. And they stay in there all day until about six. They are just talking about the show. About the stories. About all the characters. Very fast, with lots of ideas coming and going and changing all the time. Basically, I’m a stenographer. I’m taking notes on everything. I take notes all day, and then at night I have to type them all up.

This is a common pattern in many professions. If you want to be a plumber, or a carpenter, or an electrician, you generally have to go through an apprenticeship where you do lots of mindless manual labor, get coffee, and generally pay your dues and learn by osmosis until you’ve gotten to a point where the experienced people want to teach you anything.

What I find interesting is how the software business breaks from this sort of approach. Most software developers start out at their first real job developing software. They may not get to do much design or work on the most interesting problems, but even that’s not always the case. There are other areas where entry level programmers start out (like quality assurance), but by and large from day one programmers are applying the skills of their profession to solve real problems. Certainly there’s no real concept of “dues paying” in software development.

I can’t help but wonder why that is. Is it that as a profession, software development isn’t interesting to enough people that we can afford to mistreat newcomers in hope of weeding out the people who aren’t really devoted?

5 Comments

  1. Interns (co-op students, whatever you want to call them) often get the crappy jobs.. perhaps by the time they get the “real job” they’ve already paid their dues?

  2. For programming, it’s probably more profitable to have would-be interns actually doing programming work than getting coffee. And there is probably more programming work out there than there are people to fill the positions — the entertainment industry is at an extreme opposite of that.

  3. Maybe the graybeards of the software industry can’t teach the entry-level programmers what they need to know? The state of the art changes much more than in other apprenticeship jobs you mentioned.

    It would be nice if this weren’t the case.

  4. I think that last comment is actually completely backwards… I think one of the biggest problems with software is that a tremendous number of folks burn out or get priced out of the field completely by the time they’re 35, so the entire profession is full of relatively inexperienced people. When I was in my 20s and got my first professional job and a ton of responsibility I thought I was a genius. I wasn’t; I cringe now at how I would do some things back then. The problems that plague software are somehow always the same, even though the state of the art keeps changing. There’s just no excuse for the guy who has seen everything and always knows what to do. I hope to be him one day… maybe in my 40s, if I still have a job actually writing software.

  5. I agree that experience has traditionally been very much undervalued in the world of software development. I sure undervalued it when I had less experience, but now that I’ve been at it awhile, I recognize lots of mistakes other people make as mistakes I would have made myself had I not learned better. I expect that 10 years from now, I’ll realize that many of the things I’m doing these days are also mistakes.

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