IT professionals need to break glass ceiling

Beyond the geeky image, IT is driving business

Someone I know, a big-cheese software developer at a FTSE 100 company, dreads cocktail parties. He knows that his answer to the inevitable “what do you do?” question will immediately be followed by a sudden glazing over of eyes.

After glazing over, those eyes will then start desperately darting around the room for somebody, anybody else – even a corporate lawyer – to talk to rather than the IT professional standing before them.

The irony in the title of the Channel Four comedy programme The IT Crowd reflects the public’s perception of those who work in information technology: the big-haired bespectacled chap in a terrible jumper who speaks a different language to the rest of the company and hides away in a basement office, only venturing out to fix computers or send e-mails about server trouble.

The reality, however, is that the IT industry is the single most important factor in the success of the UK’s economy – the fifth largest economy in the world – and it is at the heart of some of the most iconic brands of our age.

Given the massive influence of mobile phone technology and the internet, that impact is going to increase. We only have to look at the recent havoc caused by the 70-minute glitch on the Dow Jones stock exchange, which caused millions to be wiped off its value in a single day, to see the massive influence technology has on commerce.

When an idea succeeds, it is put down to a business programme, a business initiative that went well. When it does not, it is quickly labelled an IT failure, even when the CIO has not been responsible for failed developments.

The truth is that technology is at the heart of business to the extent that it drives business. IT professionals working in this business environment need to have a broad understanding of the business case. Put plainly, they need to understand UK plc.
IT professionals need to tell the technical side of the story, and persuade and enlighten, in language the CEO and middle managers will understand, because managers are not suddenly going to start talking C++.

Everybody knows somebody like this and sees them in action every day: someone who absolutely understands the business angle, the CIOs-to-be who will succeed in smashing the existing glass ceiling and make it on to the board.

Being professional is not just about belonging to a membership organisation and adhering to its code of conduct. It also involves having business acumen, as well as ensuring your skills are up to date. Most importantly, it means getting involved in issues that affect the IT industry, and having your say in what the profession is going to look like in years to come.

In short, it means recognising the profound impact IT projects have on everybody. It is time to put the geek image to bed once and for all and stop being embarrassed about what we do. Because what we do affects everyone, whether they like it or not.

Adam Thilthorpe is programme manager for BCS Professionalism in IT

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