In a world dominated by spin, hype and public relations the idea of "working on your image" produces justifiable feelings of nausea.
So when Alan Stevens two years ago called for a drive to improve the image of the IT profession, it was predictable that it would end up in that fatal corner of the decision-maker's quadrant: important, not urgent.
While we've had high-profile campaigns to improve recruitment of teachers, nurses and police constables, there's been nothing forthcoming on IT.
But the image problem is not just some intangible malaise. It can be measured by the quality of people entering the IT profession. Students starting computing degrees arrive with A-level scores 10 points below the average for their year. IT shouldn't turn its nose up at anybody - but we need a lot more of the best people.
We are further hampered by the profession's inability to recruit and retain women. While about 70% of men on IT college courses go on to an IT job, the proportion for women is about half of that.
All this is set to impact on the skills shortage. It is not just a question of raw numbers - it is a question of quality. Too few of the best A-level students go into IT; too few university students on IT courses follow on into an IT career; too few women want to work in the professions; too many high-flyers see IT as a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
So, solving the image problem of IT is crucial to solving the skills problem of the next decade. But there is no simple solution.
Certainly launching a high-profile media blitz today is not the solution. If the National Training Organisations went to an ad agency and said, "design a campaign that shows how great it is to work in IT", they would be laughed at. The problem is that the perceptions are based on reality.
Take working hours. Most IT managers have a corporate HR policy document explaining the rules on overtime and unsocial working hours. It may as well be marked "not for IT use". The handbook says one thing - corporate culture says another. The "PPP" - programming, paintballing and getting plastered - culture exists because it contains a good mix of challenges and rewards for certain types of employee. And the type of employee it attracts is young, male, single and individualist.
When you meet successful women from an IT background they often say their biggest career landmark was getting out of the IT department and into general business management. IT simply did not recognise or reward their business-focused skills. They found the shop floor sexist and the world of the IT "great and good" old-fashioned.
Some of the IT image problems come from misunderstanding. School children drop out of IT courses because they are "boring": they are taught how to use spreadsheets and name the parts of a computer system, but they're not given much idea of what it is used for. The IT profession is building fascinating and inspiring solutions - setting the new industrial foundations of a century - but is terrible at communicating it.
Company finance directors find it hard to take in what a SAP R/3 implementation does, so why should a hard-pressed secondary school teacher be able to explain it?
The solution must lie with IT employers, not just with government initiatives or advertising campaigns. Solving the skills problem means growing the pool of excellent talent attracted to the IT profession. The five things the best employers do are:
- n Schools outreach - taking talented young recruits out to explain what a modern IT professional actually does
- n Family-friendly policies - offering flexible hours to attract and retain women with children
- n Going beyond PPP culture - or at least making sure the corporate culture offers alternatives for people with a personality and a social life
- n Investing in training - in-service training linked to career development are always cited as big factors in retention by employees. Yet a lot of the government funding for training initiatives goes unclaimed
- n Relentlessly promoting the image of IT within the firm - if there are corporate awards and citations, no matter how phoney, the fact that IT never gets a mention reinforces the geeky image.
All this effort is needed just to ensure IT attracts enough average people in the next few years, leave alone the high flyers. That is a measure of how big a hill we've got to climb.