Bell Curves and Professionalism

Are you a professional programmer? Professional technologist? A professional?

Are you familiar with the bell curve? Bell curves are used to explain everything. Equal distribution of objects in gaming, student examination placement, equal opportunity hiring distributions, setting consulting rates contextual to population densities and regional competition, house and land prices, understanding or explaining behaviour of people in groups and even IQ.

You may or may not realize that bell curves are also used by companies and employees as a defense for mediocrity. Obviously they don't say it like that.

My company is competitive with everyone else in our industry, region and city.

Ever wonder why your company spends more money on art in the hallway, sculptures in the atrium, real estate for potential development that never happens, charity drives or spectacular buildings using the latest in technology and design? If you look at where the money is spent, it will teach you what the company actually values.

Being provisioned with a cube, chair, HVAC, sunshine, subsidized insurance and company-match retirement plan is not valuing you. It is being industry competitive and following the law. You can sue for poor ergonomics in the US. So a chair, desk, HVAC and proper lighting are non-conversations. Health insurance is provided to be competitive. After it is provided, it is then subject to legislation. There aren't that many types of insurance packages and they are all regulated similarly. And retirement plans? Same options, different wording, same regulations.

So most employers aren't going out of their way to get you; just enough to be between the 10 and 2 O'clock positions on the bell curve. Be just enough legal. Be just enough competitive. Be just enough and keep the rest for the hallway art.
If you reflect on the recruiting fair you attended before being hired at Company X, you were likely sitting in a room full of HR Reps and Recruiters arguing over who's vanilla ice cream tasted the best. And when you picked one, you believed you'd somehow chosen the best vanilla ice cream available. Who knew? Right?

If that sounds jaded, then let's look at the efforts made to retain you.

Christmas parties with open-bars, company meetings, annual reviews with a +/-3% cost of living increase, recognition in the company newsletter, abuse the boss for charity events, promotions to lateral roles containing new responsibilities without a change in authority or compensation, per diem travel coverage and a USD$14 desk clock for your five-year anniversary.

I am competitive with everyone else around me.

Let's polarize just a bit before you pat yourself on the back for being highly competitive and valuable. Who really cares if you're competitive at a mediocre, center of the bell curve company?

If the above conversation depresses you, incites apathy and makes you feel like none of your choices matter in this giant machine of industry, accept your chosen position on the company's bell-curve of mediocrity as a clone. Get a t-shirt and wear it proudly. You are not as special as mom led you to believe. Your company is mediocre and so are you. In fact, consider yourself a kernel of corn in a vast corn field where your particular shade of yellow is lost in the spectrum. You, my friend, are a gradient.

However, if the above conversation ticks you off, its possible you may be a professional and you must then do something about it. Set the bar for yourself rather than accepting what is handed to you. Be better every single day than you were the day before. Read books, attend classes, go to conventions, contribute to community expertise groups, teach classes, take online courses, write and publish, propose and counter-propose cultural change in your team, project and company. Figure out how to daily evolve into something more valuable than the day before. Practice your craft. Play for the long-game. At the end of a 10-, 20-, 30- or longer year career, what will you be?

This conversation comes down to your personal work ethic and professionalism. If your company invests in your professional improvement and pushes you to be great, consider it a bonus. They are not obligated to do so and such behaviour definitely cuts into the art acquisition, storage and display strategy. The reality is your work ethic and professionalism is singularly your responsibility. You are responsible for your well-being, your professional behaviour and your work ethic. Your company is likely choosing to be between the 10 and 2 position of the bell curve to manage margins. Where do you choose to be?

We know companies normalize to the competition somewhere between 10 and 2. We also know that people normalize to the company's performance measurement frameworks somewhere between 10 and 2. We also know that companies and people homogenize into a culture. In this example, given companies and people are homogeneously normalizing between 10 and 2, they then fall into a comfortable existence otherwise known as mediocrity. Thereafter processes, procedures, measurements, rewards and penalties are built around this culture of mediocrity to protect it. Mediocrity becomes your reality and the basis by which you are measured.

Take responsibility for your professionalism.

If you would like to know what a professional software craftsman looks like, read Robert C Martin's The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers. Don't stop there. Follow up by reading Robert C Martin's Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship.

If you're content being between the 10 and 2 position on a bell curve, stop telling people you're a professional. Professionals pursue their profession through continual self-improvement regardless where they work, who they work for and the team with which they journey. Professionals practice, hone, sharpen, challenge, deconstruct and reconstruct their engineering and behavioural disciplines regularly. People living between 10 and 2 do not.

Reflecting on our previous conversation about companies that invest in hard assets. Consider this: art accrues value simply by sitting on a shelf. Ironically, people do not. If you choose to exist between 10 and 2, where do you believe your company will next invest?

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