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Professionalism in the age of COVID-19

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A still from the film "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure"

Some years ago, I wrote about what it means to be “professional” (and that it doesn’t mean having to wear a suit and tie). Recently a conversation broke out on Twitter about what it means in the information security (InfoSec) field.

The vast majority of InfoSec people in the conversation railed against the premise that professionalism is necessary.

In my original post I wrote that professionalism was about you treating people the way you want to be treated in return. I then spent some time talking about examples of what could be considered contemptible behaviour, but looking back, I really glossed over what is known as the golden rule: treat others as you would have them treat you. For those of you with a Christian education you may know it as “do unto others.”

Even before the global pandemic changed everything in 2020, the IT industry was already in flux. The Internet — the great democratizer — had been chipping away at traditional working environments. More people were working from home, more meetings were online, and communication was becoming more asynchronous. Slack would not exist without this so-called new way, the Internet way. Adults today grew up with the Internet always being there. They don’t remember the Before Times. Heck, I barely remember them and I had to memorize arcane Hayes modem codes. Uphill both ways. Through the snow.

And so, while the conversation was specifically about InfoSec on that day on Twitter, it speaks to a fundamental shift in the business landscape (especially in the IT industry): professionalism is an antiquated concept, grounded in a class system which itself is grounded in white supremacy. People swear. People share private information online. People are not automatons you only see eight hours a day between 9am and 5pm in an office setting.

So, with this in mind, I’d like to revise my original post in a simple way. Instead of focusing on what professionalism is not (and perhaps pass off that previous post as a more ignorant Randolph writing it), I’d like to focus on what it means to be a professional two decades into a century where kids grew up online and are now functional adults. You may recognize one or two of them.

  • Be excellent to each other. Bill & Ted were wise with this advice. It means to choose good intentions.
  • Cut people some slack. We are living through the worst period in living memory and it affects everything we do.
  • Be respectful of pronouns. We all use pronouns. Some of them are non-traditional. Some of them are words you may never have heard before. But, like a Starbucks order, you can remember someone’s pronouns.
  • Try to be on time for meetings. This extends to hosting them and keeping them on track. Try to have an agenda so you don’t waste people’s time. I like to plan meetings according to the ancient philosophical question: could this meeting have been an email?

I think that just about covers it. All the other stuff like blurred backgrounds, pets and children stopped mattering when we got stuck at home looking after our fellow human beings. Since we’re looking out for each other, a little compassion goes a long way.

Be excellent to each other.

Image from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, produced by Orion Pictures and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.