What does it mean to be professional? I have been pondering this recently. We can probably all agree that doctors, dentists and lawyers are professionals. Perhaps the definitive idea is captured by ICANN when they set up the .pro Internet domain. It is limited to the above, plus accountants and engineers. (Currently it is only available for people in the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.) If you want a .pro domain you have to provide credentials to the registrar. But at least your clients have high assurance they are not dealing with a flake.

Professionals have come to be generally understood to be people who have substantial legal liability for the consequences of their work. You don’t want the million-dollar house you had built for you fall apart because of a poor design. In short if you are a professional then the understanding is that you hold a position of trust. Professionals are required to maintain a certain amount of continuing education in their field. If they do not, they can lose their credentials.

So much for what passes for the legal understanding of the word. But in my twenty-five years or so in the business world the world has taken on other contexts. Executives were tacitly understood to be professionals. Senior level managers usually thought of themselves as professionals. At least in the government one sign of a professional was the cut of their cloth. If they wore suits and took care of their appearance they were assumed to be professionals. Another sign was their working hours. Real professionals do not work eight-hour days. Real professionals are in early and stay late. Real professionals are routinely in the office on the weekend or stuffing their briefcases with papers to read in the evenings and on weekends. Real professionals are always on call. Their most important tools are their cell phones and Blackberries. Here’s what I picked up through the ether: professionals were people whose clients always came first. Kids, wives and hobbies were something that professionals dabbled in when schedule allowed. For a real professional every vacation was scheduled provisionally and subject to last minute changes or cancellation.

Actually I sort of felt sorry for them. “Get a life” is what I wanted to tell them. There is more to life than work. For a professional his career is everything. If he were to be graded, his work must get an A. Work is not allowed to be turned in late. You do whatever it takes to meet your client’s demands. To me it sounded dreadful: life in hell.

At least this is what I thought being professional meant before I took my current job. Since then I have had an awakening. Professional doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, at least not in my agency. Ordinary people could be professionals. Professionals could wear jeans and a T-shirt to work. Professionals were allowed to take off time to deal with family problems. What gives? How could I possibly call them professionals?

It turns out that being professional is not about having the image of a professional, it’s actually being a professional. If you are a professional then it doesn’t matter how you dress or how long you work as long as you get the work done on time and meet very high quality standards. Auto mechanics can be and often are professionals. If you are a mechanic and you promise a rebuilt engine by 5 PM and it is ready at that time and it has been thoroughly fixed, inspected, tested and certified then you are a professional too. It turns out professionals are all around us, not just in the executive offices. What matters is the passion for excellence and the commitment to high quality. The suits, the ties, the heels, the shiny shoes and the $200 haircuts don’t matter.

The team I manage has shown me once again what true professionalism is all about. This time it happened over the Memorial Day weekend. The power gods in our building declared a power outage to test some circuits, as required by the General Services Administration. Now I could have said, “Hey team, there is going to be a power outage this weekend. We got to figure out how to keep our system up during this time. I’ll need people to work on the weekend.” But I didn’t. They were way ahead of me.

Keeping a large system serving real time information to the public is a big challenge. In our case we have geographically separated servers with redundant information just to ensure we have backup capability. But there was a wrinkle this year. We were getting unprecedented demand. May is usually our busiest month but we were unable to keep the power gods from taking down one of the nodes of our system anyhow. One third of our capacity would be offline for more than twelve hours. My team got busy.

The mechanics of how they solved this problem don’t matter. The point is they did it. Despite being geographically separated they collaborated via phone, email and instant message and decided who would do what and when. A zillion emails flew around with others we needed to collaborate with whom provided electricity, network support and distributed routing. Admittedly as the time approached for the dreaded power outage we were nervous. I was biting my nails, since I am the system manager and have ultimate accountability. Warnings went out. System messages came up on the web site. Routers switched customers to different servers.

When the power came back on two members of my team were hovering over their consoles and began pounding away at their keyboards. Having the electricity back up is just one part of a complex dance. Are the local and wide area networks working correctly? Did the servers boot up correctly? (It turned out that a test server lost a disk drive during the power up.) Were all the redundant servers serving the same information? When the server was down it lost its feed and there were more than twelve hours of information it needed to digest before it could be reenabled. They were on these details and myriad other ones on a Saturday during a holiday weekend dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. By mid Saturday afternoon the servers were back up and all was back to normal. Fortunately despite unprecedented demand the other servers were able to keep up with demand. From our customer’s perspective it was like nothing major had happened, except for some old historical data was unavailable for a while. All the critical data needed to safeguard lives and protect property kept streaming through and was served nationally.

This by itself was pretty remarkable. But this is just one part of the chaos these half dozen people dealt with last month. I throw boat anchors at them regularly, engaging them in tedious planning meetings when they were itching to do system maintenance or development. It’s our planning season so I also have members of my team working on planning documents while biting their nails over performance problems from our unexpectedly high demand. And there is a big acceptance test coming next week we are preparing for. Maybe unlike the image of a professional they did not exude perfect confidence all the time. Maybe they were a little terse and crabby from time to time from the pressure. But we were all in the foxhole together. Everyone was focused like a laser beam on our problems.

The irony is that as civil servants if they wanted to they could have disclaimed any responsibility and taken their three day weekends regardless. I had no money to pay them overtime, just the carrot of comp time. It’s not like people on my team don’t have families that need them. Some of them have challenging family problems. But they could and did manage their family problems around their work responsibilities.

This is a small story doubtless replicated millions of times a day across this country of ours. But it is this sort of spirit and fierce determination that truly makes this country such a remarkable place. It is one of the reasons, current administration excepted, I am very proud to be an American and a civil servant. My team may not be in literal foxholes in Iraq battling insurgents, but they are in foxholes of a sort a lot of the time nonetheless, routinely giving 150% of themselves for their country. It’s important for my fellow taxpayers to know that the characterization of your government civil servants as lazy, bureaucratic and spoiled is more myth than reality. Despite shrinking budgets, despite an executive branch more enamored with swords than plowshares, despite sometimes overt hostility by the people who run this country directed at them, they soldier on too and routinely deliver excellence.

Perhaps next to the ubiquitous “Support our troops” yellow ribbons stuck to our car bumpers there will someday be a “Support our civil servants” ribbon too. Yeah, not in my lifetime.

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