Is IT a profession?

The status of professional can probably never be applied to programmers - who probably do not need to aspire to it in any case....

The status of professional can probably never be applied to programmers - who probably do not need to aspire to it in any case. That is the view of some senior BCS members just as the society launches a study of whether IT can ever be classed as a true profession, writes John Kavanagh.

The BCS is following up research by a member last year which concluded that IT is at best a semi-profession, in that, unlike accepted professions such as medicine and law, it has no agreed core of knowledge, training is short and it is generally unregulated.

But this whole issue does not apply to many IT people in any case, argues Christine Ashton and Ruth Wallsgrove. Ashton is in the professional grade of Member, a chartered engineer and IT director of mobile telephone service company Singlepoint; Wallsgrove is managing director of consultancy SFK Technology. Together they founded the BCS Business-IT Interface specialist group last year.

"IT now covers a multitude of jobs and technologies," they say. "Some people install networks and are first cousins to electricians and telephone engineers and there is no reason to think they need to be professionals.

"Many others, particularly in support or maintenance programming, have no more skill or importance than many other administrative workers. This is not to disparage them, but the issue goes farther.

"A line of faulty code can certainly make a system crash, just as faulty wiring can burn down a building, and standards of training and work need to be applied in both cases - but minimum, certifiable skill levels and codes of conduct do not make a profession."

Ashton and Wallsgrove add here, "Making high level decisions which affect those who implement them and who live with the result is only the responsibility of a few - and not the support staff, network engineers, or even programmers."

They say confusion arises partly because whereas in construction, say, the professionals are graduates such as architects and engineers, in the IT business graduates are often coders, the equivalent of bricklayers.

They continue, "This is not to say programmers do not need to be skilled, or that many of them are not clever, responsible and invaluable. It is just to point out that we often do not need more than a quite specific technical job from them.

"Where we really want professionalism is in business analysts, designers, project managers and bridges between business and IT: the equivalent of architects and engineers.

"This demands real training, and professional and ethical standards. Do not make someone a project manager just because they're a good programmer: instead, think how they can progress as a programmer.

"We must recognise differences. As IT grows, no-one can do it all, though this might have been possible 25 years ago. In fact, today the very characteristics that make you able to do one job well are precisely those that will not suit you to another. What makes some people very good at programming is also likely to rule them out at business liaison."

How do you see yourself?

  • Networking engineers, do you see yourselves as electricians?

  • Maintenance programmers, ever thought of yourselves as admin staff?

  • Write code? See yourself as a bricklayer?

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