What does Professional Status mean to you?

As a User Group Leader I am often asked my opinion about the value of Technical Certification. My answer is always the same, “all things being equal, who would you select for employment?”. Now I fully realize that “all things are rarely equal” and I could stand to be accused of giving something of a cop out answer. However, there is no other way to honestly answer the question without perhaps introducing my own biases on the subject. Incidentally, I am in favour of Technical Certification if only for the fact that it demonstrates that you have made a commitment and successfully completed a course of study. Knowledge is never wasted and experience has taught me you never know when it will come in useful!

The nay-sayers  usually come up with the argument that Technical Certification does not speak to experience and competence, and I can only agree. However, this is a negative argument because Certification with experience might just result in a higher level of competence than without. I often find that the nay-sayers are people who have been in the industry for some time and consider that Certification isn’t going to teach them anything. I suspect that there is also an element of, “do I really want to make the effort rather than do I really need to make the effort?”.  Ultimately, we are all driven by “need”; the need to feel secure, the need to feed and clothe ourselves and our families, the need to maintain a roof over our heads and, certainly by no means the least, the need for self-fulfillment. For the vast majority of us that means we need to have and sustain gainful employment.

So what does any of this have to do with “Professional Status”? Professional Status is about “raising the bar” to ultimately benefit everyone. It is not just some other “Certification”. It is a responsibility to Society as a whole as much as it is to the individual Profession or oneself. For example, most Professional Associations have a clear intent and policy to help and support the Community through volunteer and charitable activities. In turn, it is about being formally recognized and acknowledged by Society for the contribution made. Just in case you are concerned that this sounds somewhat “elitist” that couldn’t be farthest from the truth. In fact the standards by which Professional Status should be judged must be diametrically opposite. Selfless behavior, unimpeachable Conduct and adherence to a Code of Ethics are central to, and vital to, the maintenance of “Professional Status” both in the interests of the Profession itself and in the eyes of Society as a whole. This is why Professional Associations have policies and procedures to deal with “impeachable” conduct. Professional Associations are charged with the responsibility, often by law, to maintain the highest technical and behavioral standards. So “Professional Status” and “Certification” can, and should, complement each other.

The use of computers is now taken for granted in our everyday lives. So their use is now fundamental to the prosperity and safety of Society. If we examine other “Professions” it is easy to see how such things evolved and why. Having actually spent the majority of my career in the Engineering Profession I feel reasonably qualified to speak with a little authority and to compare what is happening now in the IT Profession to what has happened over time in Engineering.

As a modern Society, would we simply be happy to accept a building falling down, a dam bursting, a chemical plant exploding, constant electrical outages? The answer is obvious but in our daily lives we don’t stop to think about why these things are so rare these days, especially in developed countries.  There was a time when such things were more common. So what changed to make that difference? Clearly “we” gained knowledge and experience but that of itself would not come close to guaranteeing a major improvement without some means of knowing that those gains would be uniformly and consistently applied. In the Engineering world much of that knowledge and experience went into national and international Standards and Guidelines of one kind or another, and continues to do so through the Standards bodies. It is a constantly moving target.

However, Standards and Guidelines are not “painting by numbers” and are never likely to be. This is where that all too important, and often elusive, “personal experience” comes in. So if we are to entrust our “existence” to those people who “build and maintain” our physical, business and social infrastructure there must be a mechanism to determine and continue to confirm their fitness for that purpose. That is where “Professional Status” becomes relevant. In other words it is “Responsibility with public Accountability”. In many parts of the world this means legal Accountability due to the involvement of Government, for example the P.Eng or the CIPS ISP in Canada.

Does that mean that those people who cannot put P.Eng., ISP  or some other suitable accreditation after their name are incompetent? No, certainly not. I have worked with many very competent people who don’t have any such designations. However, I firmly believe that their time is numbered and that they are representative of a passing generation. Engineers and Technologists now leaving University understand that their objective must be to aim for “Professional Status” if they want to ultimately meet their needs and in turn the needs of Society.

So what is happening in the IT Profession? Much has been written here by Stephen Ibaraki regarding CIPS and the ISP designation. I won’t  go over that and Stephen is far more knowledgeable on the subject than I. However, I can now see the beginnings of change towards the need and importance of Professional Status in the IT Profession and ultimately the reasoning is the same. Because of the impact that the IT Profession (let’s not confuse Profession with Professional Status – I suspect that if you suggested to someone in the IT Profession that they weren’t a “Professional” you might get a black eye) now has, it is time to start to take formal “Accountability” seriously.

However, there is another component that is equally important before it can all come togethor. My original background is in Process Engineering. It didn’t matter how well I knew my job if the “hardware and software” that was necessary to build a Chemical Plant wasn’t somehow also assured. In other words, the “product” is still only as good as the “tools” that are used to make it. If I were to translate that the IT world, then if we are to hold people professionally accountable then the “tools” that are used must be equally have some kind of assurance. If I am again to try and draw a parallel then there must be “Standards” to measure against. Otherwise it will be very difficult to get people to accept “responsibility with accountability” without some assurance that they won’t always be left holding the baby. Of course, nothing is remotely perfect, which is why this is always a moving target. Software suppliers for example, as suppliers of some of the “tools”, may have to be a little more willing to stand up and be counted.

If we evolve to a situation where there is increasing pressure for the individual to obtain “Professional Status”  in IT but don’t at the same time give people some reasonable assurance that the “tools” that they use are not going to leave them constantly exposed then we will only arrive at a litigious environment where the insurance companies and lawyers are the only real beneficiaries. In other words the whole “IT ecosystem” must move forward for everyone to gain. That took a long time in Engineering and it won’t happen overnight in IT either. However, the IT industry has the benefit of being able to learn from the experience of others and it would be wise to do so. For those who are astute enough there is an opportunity here. The “suppliers” in the Engineering world who saw the importance of “raising the bar” benefited by “joining the party” early on. Today we think of this as Quality Assurance and Support. Ask yourself, “what really ultimately costs the most, the cheapest product with little or no support or the ‘quality’ product with support?”. Remember, “there is no free lunch!”.

I am sure many of you are probably asking yourselves, “we have managed OK so far so why will it, or should it, need to change?”. Let’s examine what has happened in the Project Management world over the past few years for example. Constant “project failures” demanded change. The PMI has been around for quite some time (just like CIPS for example) and it was formed with the very intent of setting those yardsticks which could lead to “Responsibility with Accountability” but the number of PMP’s didn’t take off until industry and society were ready to demand it. Now in many cases you cannot get a more senior job as a PM without the PMP designation. For example, “project failures” have hardly been uncommon in the IT world. Understandably people now want some reasonable assurances before putting down their money. So why in turn would it be unreasonable to want those same assurances about some of the other resources that directly affect the outcome of a project or the operation of a company?

Why would you want to achieve “Professional Status”? The negative stance is because “I want to remain employed”. The positive stance is because “I believe in the value and importance of Professionalism and I want to help raise the bar”. I have always subscribed to the latter approach and I would like to encourage you to think the same way. The two approaches are entirely different and symptomatic of different thought processes.

Will this happen today in IT? Probably not. Will this happen tomorrow? Possibly. Will this happen in the foreseeable future? Highly likely. It has to happen in order to “raise the bar” and bring the “IT Profession” up alongside the other already formally recognized Professions to represent its place and importance in today’s society. Be alert, many things are happening now! Be astute, know and understand  the importance to you!


Graham Jones

Comments (2)

  1. Tony Santolaria says:

    Totally agree, I found the article very inspiring, thank you

  2. Graham Jones says:

    Thank you Tony for your kind comment which makes the effort to set down my thoughts all the more worthwhile.

    "True Professionalism" isn’t about being able to hang something on the wall or be able to put some letters after your name. That is nice to do and there is absolutely no reason not to show your justifiable pride in achieving "Professional Status". "True Professionalism" is really an ingrained "state of mind" such that it governs every thought and action instinctively to uphold the highest technical and ethical standards.

    I used to help train process workers for chemical plants that invariably had something that was either toxic, corrosive or explosive. So Safety was a prime concern. I used to tell people, "I can give you all of the technical facts and best advice on how to conduct yourself safely but I cannot teach you to think ‘Safety’". Acting safely is also a "state of mind". I also believe that the same is true when it comes to doing "Quality" work.

    Personal pride should be our strongest motivation. My beliefs and experience tell me that if you work "selflessly" the rewards will eventually come whether it be personal recognition or financially. Ultimately, we only have one person to live with and that is "ourselves".

    Achieving Professional Status is one thing but there needs to be a mechanism in place to ensure that "standards" are maintained and indeed to continue to "raise the bar" to reflect technical and social change. For, example the PMI expects a PM to obtain a certain number of PDU’s (Professional Development Units) to maintain the PMP designation.

    Just imagine how the "quality" of driving standards would improve if everybody was required to re-pass a driving test every year! Either that or we would solve traffic congestion problems for a while! At the moment practical standards seem to be heading in the wrong direction fast and instead of trying to improve standards we simply raise insurance premiums. We should regard driving as a continuously earned privilege and not a right. Perhpas then there might be less carnage on the roads!

    This is why Professional Associations play such a vital role in our society and why "Professional Status" should be a continuously earned privilege.


    Graham J.  

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