What makes a professional?  

professionalWhat makes a professional?  

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now.

Obviously there’s the simple definition of a person that performs a role and gets paid for it.

But I believe it’s more than that, particularly in today’s world where people can have a “portfolio career” where they perform many roles, some paid and some simply for the love of the work.

There is an implicit understanding that when you hire a professional they have the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out the task.  

But I’m sure you can think of plenty of people who get paid and yet do a shoddy job.  I bet you also know people who do things as a pastime and produce work of the highest caliber. Between these two which one would you say is the professional?  

I’ve read plenty of articles about how be a professional or what professional needs, and yet most of those focus on things such turning up on the time always giving 100% and so on. Those are table stakes.

Many years ago one had to undergo a lengthy apprenticeship before being considered a professional, often not reaching that stage until many years into a career. But in today’s world, where knowledge and experience are often outdated in a very short amount of time, apprenticeships are often a thing of the past.   

The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that, for me, one of the defining characteristics of a professional is someone who has learned from their mistakes. And the best professionals consistently push the boundaries of their knowledge and experience and use the mistakes inevitably found in new endeavors as a core part of their education.

Anyone can be a professional when everything fits together, people deliver on time, and there are no surprises.

But to be truly worthy of the title “Professional” you need more.  You need to be able to adapt to changing situations.  You need to be able to anticipate problems and solve them before they occur.  And, when finally something does go awry, you have the skills, experience and confidence to work the problem and keep things on track. THAT is what makes a real professional, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re paid to do that or not.

Want to see what a true Professional looks like?  Watch the movie Apollo 13.  NASA was constantly pushing boundaries.  They knew the risks and when things went wrong the Professionals at NASA kept their cool, took what they had and created innovative solutions to get their people home.  

Money?  That has nothing to do with being a professional.  It’s all about attitude and a passion to continually learn.


Filed under Business, Career

7 responses to “What makes a professional?  

  1. rainabba

    In the last couple years, I’ve been forced to reevaluate myself in light of my career. I’ve spent nearly 2 decades in software in one form or another and despite being able to make some pretty hefty claims; they always sounded exaggerated to my own ears, when coming out of my mouth so I felt awkward calling myself a professional even though I can’t imagine many people refuting the claim. Still, I was reluctant to claim the title until my personal interest in virtual reality, backed by my years of photography and a years of “playing around” with a variety of video technologies saw me into the role of CTO in an up-and-coming VR company which in turn found me working side-by-side with (not employed by or for to be clear) the production team for RedBull, with the streaming engineers they use to broadcast to the Internet, and helping Samsung give 1,000’s their first experience with VR at the largest music festivals in North America.

    Your article resonates with me because by most objective definitions, I’m a professional software developer and DBA, but I didn’t feel like it and few labeled me as such who had the knowledge and experience to do so (worth mentioning that I work from home and am not even surrounded by co-workers or peers often in that field). On the other hand, I’m quite new to the “professional” field of photography, videography and VR, yet I don’t mind saying that I’m one of very few people in the world who has done a real-time video production broadcasting to VR and I’ve been complimented by some rather significant people in the industry both explicitly and implicitly and a large part of that comes down to the fact that we show up to do what we do amongst 10k’s of people, have to deal with incredible challenges on the fly and have yet to fail.

    Am I more of a “professional” for having spent decades in a field, or for successfully doing something new and difficult? I think you raise a great point and I’m presently of the mind that I am on both accounts, but for very different reasons in each field. In the end, not even others with experience in these fields; paid or not, could do what I do readily (and for pay) and that seems like a good basis to label me a professional in general and in those fields. It does not mean that others are not are not either though, so where do we stop applying the label OR is the label possibly less meaningful in this world where knowledge and experience are such different beasts?

    Was Einstein a professional in physics when he was a “only” a patent clerk, but generating his Theory of Relativity, or did he not earn that title until he quit and started receiving funding and/or recognition for that theory?

    Is a soldier a professional right after boot-camp, or not until he’s fought in a war [and killed an enemy?]

  2. Great points.

    The interesting thing about the English language is that it is constantly evolving. Once upon a time the term Gentlemen meant someone of high birth. They could have been a total jerk but they would still have been a Gentleman. These days the definition has changed.

    If you perform a role with skill, passion, dedication and a desire to learn all you can about the subject then, IMHO, you are a professional, paid or not. Based on the description above it would seem that you definitely fit in that category.

  3. Rick Anderson

    One only needs to look to other recognized Professionals to realize the standards of what makes up a professional as opposed to an employee. For example, a doctor or accountant, or lawyer each I) are certified in their field, ii) belong to the governing association, iii) attend conferences, conducts research on current and evolving trends, iv) Most importantly they identify themselves first as that profession who happen to be currently engaged at a specific employer.
    Herein lays the key. We would never engage a dentist who ‘learned on the job’ or by taking a weekend course without the other pieces in place, So why do we do this in the change disciplines?
    A few years ago, I researched each of the change disciplines. Each one has a governing association and industry standards. Each has members of the profession who attend conferences, conduct research on current developments or trends, and many contribute to new approaches. As examples, I found governing standards and associations for Testing, Business Architecture, Developers, Program Governance, Project Management, Process Re-engineering and so on.
    The nest time you meet someone in the change industry ask them what they do If they start their statement with ‘I work for X company’ – they are an employee not a professional. If they can tell you their profession and they know the governing association for their profession, attend their conferences, constantly research the developments in their profession, and ideally contribute – then THEY are a professional
    They others are employees who dabble in a skill – but they are not fully a professional.

    • One of the interesting things about the cases you sited are that each of them expect ongoing education and refinement of the knowledge and skills required. To me that is the defining characteristic of a professional. Does it need to be formal though? I think there are certainly areas where I would say yes and are other areas where I would say no. Some of the best project managers I know do not have a PMP and have no interest in joining any similar body, and yet they constantly strive to improve their skills. Would I let a surgeon operate on me if they had not been to medical school? No way!

      • Rick Anderson

        I totally agree many of the best Project managers learned by doing the job, yet I can also tell you those project managers also do not always stay current. They do not know the latest developments or cross industry examples. They get the job done but they are not necessarily leading their industry.
        At the same time, formal certification also does not mean one is a professional. A few years ago, the Vice president of the PMI said to me, “Many of our PMPs can not manage their way out of a paper bag”. Many can take formal training which really only proves they can memorize answer.
        However, if we use the same standards as a Doctor, or Dentist, there is an internship or articling period. The Same applies to the Change professions which btw goes far beyond Project mangers to include QA, ITIL, Architects, even the BA has a governing certification and professional association.
        So it is the combination of
        1) Certified learning
        2) Internship
        3) Professional Association involvement
        4) On-Going Research and knowledge of current trends
        Whenever I hear someone say something is an “Industry Best Practice” I shutter. My response is usually “OH from which decade?” They are usually out of date, and the person using the term is really trying to boost their point on an outdated standard. Its sort of like saying that a particular medicine was noted to be revolutionary – yet they neglect to mention that the statement was made in the 1980’s.

  4. Rick Anderson

    a few more thoughts
    The nature of research is by definition not formal… For example, On a regular basis, a professional is searching for articles, studies, case examples, and ideally blending concepts into new models. I would argue the professional is doing this each month at a minimum on weekends.
    This is what I mean when I say, the professional identifies themselves by their profession first then whom is their current client (employer)
    In the case of Project Mangers as an example, those same great PMs often do not know things like (Resource Management, Value Analysis, or a particular method – each of which are also certifiable). The same applies to Architects – do they know about TOGAF and other standards?
    As an experiment – pick a job role, then research for a governing association or body. I did this a few years ago and discovered every role has a governing body of some type (in varying levels of maturity). The professional knows this. However, when you ask someone in that role to name the governing association – they usually have a blank look on their face. How can one claim to be a professional if they don’t even know the professional forums which govern their ‘profession’ ? It also tells me they don’t research.

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