Shibboleths

3 Jul 2006 /

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

Thus the original meaning of the word “shibboleth”: a password that people from one side can pronounce but their enemies can’t.

The word has since taken on a more general meaning as not necessarily a password, but a custom or practice that separates the good guys from the bad guys, the insiders from the outsiders.

Shibboleths serve an important role in the IT business. IT is a poorly educated profession. In some professions — medicine, law, nuclear physics — you can count on everyone having basically the same education and a common body of knowledge. In IT, you can’t. I’ve worked with English majors, French majors, people with no college education at all . . . it’s all over the map as far as what people know or don’t know.

And as for continuing education, according to DeMarco and Lister, the average software developer doesn’t own a single book on the subject of his or her work, and hasn’t ever read one.

It wasn’t always like this, but it is now.

So your ability to be happy in IT depends not so much on what you know, but on your ability to adopt the customs and practices — the shibboleths — of the profession.

That’s one reason why change is so painful and slow. A lot of our customs and practices — particularly with regard to the traditional waterfall life cycle — have been discredited about as thoroughly as possible, but we continue to use them.

Why? Because challenging the shibboleths marks you as an outsider. You lose the social and psychological benefits to be had by conforming to the group. Issues of technical merit become secondary to issues of personal identity and moral worth. Most people don’t want to deal with this.

As Nietzsche used to say, “If you want happiness and peace of mind, believe; if you want truth, seek.”

Thus spoke The Programmer.


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