[Event Summary] : Is IT a Profession?

David Devine from BCS Headquarters was our main speaker and this was followd by a panel discussion on IT Professionalism chaired by Tim Lambertstock, with Tony Cox and Dr Brian Day. There were also many questions and contributions from the audience resulting in a stimulating debate.

Analogies were made with the health service where a surgeon, radiographer, nurse or physiotherapist each have their own recognised qualifications, training and professional bodies who govern standards. A civil engineer will design a bridge and has liability but the actual building is left to trades people. The washing machine mechanic may be called an engineer but would not really be regarded as one in the engineering profession. However, a central heating engineer cannot service your gas boiler unless Corgi registered. The construction industry involves a plethora of different disciplines including architect, quantity surveyor, plumber and carpenter – some of these are regarded as professions and some as trades. In particular, design and implementation are separated.

The IT industry is a broad church and embraces the serious engineering of mission critical systems or essential business systems as well as the technician who mends a PC. There is a mix of skills, experience and qualifications. As a new industry, the academic side has only crept up over the last two decades. What is involved in a complex system is difficult to explain and many people will not appreciate the skills and professionalism involved and not understand the difference between a well-designed system and a bad one. Again, as in the relationship between the architect and the builders, the designers or systems architects will not actually write code or build the system.

Our industry has an image problem; many people have come across first line help desk support or a PC technician but not a designer of mission critical systems. Highly skilled programmers are often not even recognised within their own companies and TV parodies such as the ‘IT Crowd’ have not helped.

Within IT, a duty of responsibility is not seen in sufficient evidence. Project failures have been very public and not uncommon. It was suggested that the London Ambulance fiasco may have killed 30-40 people but this was unusual. The industry must take some responsibility for this but those who commission projects must too. Quality costs and a software engineer will not be listened to with the same respect as an architect who says that a sound building cannot be built for the given price.

To dispel the jack of all trades perception, the IT industry needs to be broken down into disciplines. Skills, technical and professional levels with recognised levels with the tasks that can be undertaken by appropriately skilled people.

Mission critical and government contracts are now only awarded to well qualified people. A project manager without Prince 2 would not get government work. The banking industry will only employ well qualified systems engineers as their business depends on them.

There are vendor-specific qualifications that also have credibility, such as MSCE or Cisco accredited engineer, and maybe more credibility than CITP. Perhaps the BCS could validate Cisco or Microsoft qualifications.

SFIA Plus from the BCS is a well kept secret but did receive an endorsement from the floor from a HR manager.

‘Professional’ means more than a legal or financial liability, it also encompasses notions of taking responsibility and an ethical approach. It means a duty to the profession more than just a duty to the employer. BCS is able to arrange professional liabaility insurance and there may be more need for this in  the future.

– Sheila