Almost since its inception, BCS has been championing the concept of professionalism. In early 2023, we asked members what professionalism means to them today as BCS looks at further codifying its professionalism approach. Brian Runciman MBCS reports.
A few snapshots from BCS-past give us a good idea of the key role the concept of professionalism has played. Right back in 1957 – the year the London Computer Group morphed in BCS — this was noted: ‘...it is one of the tasks of BCS, by bringing together designer and user, expert and novice, to minimise the risk of future projects going astray. If Charles Babbage had been able to plan his work more surely... it is likely that computers would have been working for many decades past.’
This article, called ‘Computers and pressure cookers’ was published in December 1957. Subsequently the idea of a code of conduct took hold. In the May 1971 issue of Computer Bulletin (ITNOW’s previous incarnation) there was feedback published on a draft code of good practice.
In December 1975, against the backdrop of a discussion of European cooperation in standards of database management and data communications, the BCS directly asked: ‘What is professionalism?’ At that time it reported that there were 40,000 computer professionals in the UK, and 181,000 professionals across the EEC.
In June 1976, a special project committee was set up to look at the professional status of the industry, which led to the draft code of conduct in March 1977. The idea? It states, in part, that ‘members of the Society will appreciate that continued evidence of their determination to abide by the Code will ensure the public trust in computer professionals, which is so necessary to the effective use of computers.’
A 1992 House of Lords debate on the professions reiterated that key point, noting that ‘the rules and standards enforced by the governing body [of a profession] must be designed for the benefit of the public and not for the private advantage of members.’
Professionalism in 2023
In the intervening years, to say the requirement for professionalism in the industry has increased would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. This is not only because of the sheer number of people who now work in IT, but also because of the clear, direct effect IT systems have on society - and our royal charter from 1984 made the BCS’ role in that even more explicit.
The Institute takes a four-point view: that a professional should be Competent, Accountable, Ethical and Inclusive. In keeping with this, the BCS Digital in Business Life research 2023 asked a free text question: ‘What do you think is needed in order to increase professional standards across our industry?’
A high-level look at the answers gives us clear areas for further discussion. With 55 mentions, the most common phrase responders used was ‘education and training’. Next on the list was ‘standards’, which was followed by ‘code of conduct’.
One commenter outlined the problem rather well: ‘technical jobs such as IT and engineering are not considered professions in the same way as, for example, accountancy. This is partly driven by practitioners who are able to leverage knowledge of the latest technology into high salaries and therefore don't care about professional standards; society in general, which finds it hard to understand technology and its importance; senior leaders in business, who jump on the latest technology bandwagons as a solution to a more complex problem; a political class who have no knowledge of the business or industry and last encountered STEM in any meaningful way at O-level; and a rapidly declining cohort of people like me who have seen enough projects fail to understand the importance of professional standards.’
Here are some comments grouped into general headings. Of course there is a lot of crossover between a number of these issues.
Standards and education
Standards and education have obvious roles in the concept of professionalism. These ideas are in keeping with BCS’ purpose and role; it’s the reason we provide recognised qualifications, get involved with schools and, for our members, require adherence to the code of conduct.
But as one commenter said, professionals need to adhere to a ‘code of conduct [with] professional but accessible standards - there must be a balance between standards and gate-keeping.’
A BCS-centric view would also include post-nominals. ‘Experience and professionalism could be demonstrated by MBCS/CITP/CEng status,’ wrote one member, ‘but, sadly, I have never been asked about it in any job I've taken in IT in financial services, and it has never been a job requirement to have such a designation.’
In the same vein, another wrote: ‘I think that BCS membership and Chartered status needs to have more weight and meaning in the industry, as it does in other professional industries such as civil and structural engineering. The perception of professionalism in the IT industry could be increased by, for example, mandating the use of Chartered Professionals on certain projects. Coupled with this would be the need for mandatory CPD for Chartered Professionals, to demonstrate a continuing commitment to professionalism.’
Another suggestion was the need for ‘unified standards that are business domain agnostic, to assess knowledge and improve training across the industry, with a low barrier to entry to allow individuals without sponsorship access to certification and training. Additional, smaller qualifications to provide background information in the application of domain agnostic techniques to specific domains.’
Other comments included the need for recognised certifications — a single, globally recognised route for each career path — regular assessment of professional competency, and a focus on core skills and competencies of software development lifecycle, rather than more generic subjects like project management and HR, which have their own professional societies.
The overall theme of risk came up regularly in this professionalism thread. One member wrote that we need, ‘a greater appreciation that some interventions in computing and communications even if "well intentioned" are more dangerous to a business and society collectively than the problems they are apparently trying to solve and, in practice, cannot.’
This member cites the issues inherent in automation being taken out of managers’ hands and into those of algorithms - both to solve decision-making inadequacies and legislative and regulatory overreach. They write: ‘this is artificially changing the "risks" IT prioritises. The problem here is that legislating IT is being done on the assumption that the problem is the internet, and that society's problems can be solved by legislating IT. This is a problem that degrades the IT profession’s ability to act with creativity to invent and deploy next generation stable scalable information service infrastructures. Very little professional attention is being spent on applying these first principle priorities in day to day responsibilities of the IT profession.’
One member suggested a specific area for consideration: ‘Both RED team [Editor’s note: offensive security experts] and BLUE team [defensive security experts] are necessary to understand threat/risk exposure and mitigate such threats at optimum cost.’
Diversity and inclusion
BCS already promotes the principles of diversity and inclusion. Several members picked up on this theme in the professionalisation context. One wrote that we need ‘admission of how terrible the industry is about basic inclusion - from disability to class, from sexism to racism, especially lack of access to basic tech education and resources for most people and businesses outside of cities.’
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Another valid point also has its roots in the experience/qualifications conundrum: ‘Some recognition of experience in older workers would be good,’ wrote a commenter. ‘Older workers in IT are considered to be less valuable due to the possibility that they are not as fluent in the newer technologies as their younger colleagues and probably earn more; however, experience is applicable to all projects, irrespective of technologies used, and many mistakes could be avoided by using older and more experienced staff across the project.’
Whilst the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra seems to have been mercifully consigned to history, there is still a balance to be struck between innovation and ethical considerations – and the following comment also includes the role of government:
‘[We need] better / larger / faster investment in innovation for homegrown companies that attract experienced people and provide for structured, on the job learning and mentoring for juniors. The talk of a Silicon Valley in the UK is currently nonsense as the available funds for investment, the timeframes and bureaucracy are stifling and the level /ability to take and absorb risk is laughable.
The BCS code of conduct requires IT practitioners to adhere to it – membership can be lost if not. In the context of professionalism as an idea, consequences for unprofessional conduct are required to make the idea meaningful. We had several comments along these lines:
‘As has become the norm in almost every other professional organisation, we need external regulation and penalties for poor performance of professionals. When you can get away with murder you will do it again.’
‘[We need] contracts that tie developers (and outsourcing companies) down to costs and time and liability costs for damage or failure to fulfil contacts — especially gov contracts — if not fit for task in time, then no money!’
‘[We need] vendor liability for defective software.’
‘[We need] security accreditors who have teeth!’
On the broad theme of providing and ensuring societal benefit – as per BCS’ mantra – we also had a wide range of views on what more could be done:
- Criminalising the business model of almost all major tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Professional standards will never develop in IT until we stop considering surveillance capitalists the perfect example of progress and innovation.
- Getting the BCS ingrained into (especially) government organisations as a way of establishing and mapping professional progression.
- The Institute needs to engage and inspire school pupils in order to fill the IT vacancies
- Work to increase opportunities for people from different backgrounds to obtain professional degrees in IT based on their interpersonal skills and inspirations
- The government needs to set better standards — for example, the NHS still uses paper-based Hospital Passports for people with learning difficulties and they get lost
- Creating something similar to check-a-trade for IT professionals
One commenter considers the key to be ‘good leadership. I think that the BCS is doing a great job to try and push us in the right direction. Perhaps if more of my colleagues were members then it would be a smoother process.’
The full report is available at bcs.org and throughout 2023 BCS will be exploring how some of these important concepts can be codified, allowing us to measure this key aspect of IT so that we can demonstrate the effectiveness of our IT professionals and their contribution to IT being good for society.
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