Professionalism in IT – Evolution or revolution?

Posted on November 1, 2010

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Further to an earlier blog I wrote (Cloud driving change in the IT Department & Profession – But no FIX!) I got into a debate on the wider subject of Professionalism in IT which led me to write this follow-up.

My dream is that one day a customer can enter any IT Professionals practice or engage any qualified IT professional and immediately be entering into a consistent and transparent service framework and billing structure in the security that there are available channels of recourse that encourage the highest level of professional care and diligence will be received. In effect a form of model contract similar to those you would be presented with if you walked into any Lawyers, Accountants or Chartered Surveyors office. Even across boarders the fundamentals persist, albeit with some regional variety to accommodate regulatory variances.

In the common contract concept I am of a like mind with our friends in the EU who aspire in their Digital Agenda to just such an ideal. It would be like traveling on an autobahn compared with the dirt tracks of ICT project negotiation and fulfilment of today, we could do with this to accelerate tapping the potential in Cloud Computing across the core foundation of EU recovery in the SME market (Small Medium Enterprise) market place. Instead they languish in the dark when seeking trusted ICT providers to shepherd them through the minefield of new technology adoption and most importantly the impact such adoption has on their business.

However I find I am not alone in challenging rather than supporting the use in ICT of titles such as ‘professional’, ‘architect’ and ‘engineer’. Titles that resonated with a rich pedigree laid down in corporate DNA through a long tradition of interaction with other more established Institutes and Professions. Professions and Institutes governed and maintained to consistent standards through self-regulation and consistant training and educational structures, the top strata of which would probably include the Law Society, Chartered Accountants, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and British Medical Association. At which point I should declare my other ‘minority’ day job as I come from a more traditional professional background as a Chartered Surveyor (member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) before moving into IT 18 years ago.

Short of a blast of radiation, DNA has proven to be quiet robust stuff, no less the corporate variety. This has led to a surprising acceptance of the adoption of ‘Professional’, ‘Architect’ and ‘Engineer’ titles amongst IT practitioners. Historically hard won titles attained only after years of rigorous training and structured apprenticeship for entry to a Professional Association, Institute or Guild amongst other venerated bodies of best practices and quality control. And it does not stop there, with continues professional development monitored, supervised on an annual basis, ensuring members maintain the strict levels of quality. In return earning the trust and respect of the marketplace in return.

The rub here is that of course IT practitioners and practices are not subject to rigours of training, continuous professional development or governance monitoring. Some would argue that years on a keyboard or in a datacentre is experience enough and or vendor certification qualifies, but that is a little like saying you would get on an operating table / take legal advice / have your money managed by an unqualified doctor / lawyer / accountant respectively? Some may but most would shy from the idea.

This culminated for me over the last few years in a realisation that whilst many IT practices and practitioners aspire to the highest standards and accept no less, many are cavalier either in arrogance or ignorance and maybe both. Having looked at growing an IT business through acquisition and or merger I have looking over the fence at over half a dozen other IT service companies and have been shocked to find the general lack of basic business management, accounting or client contractual discipline; quality and compliance controls almost non-existent. No wonder we have struggled in any M&A, the due diligence is frightening and consequential risk ratios make a mockery of the inflated value expectation of the sellers.

For a service sector ripe for consolidation, the state of many IT practices means this will be challenging or impossible, a sad indictment of years of hard work for many if they find they cannot capitalise on their efforts through a business sale.

Is it any wonder that the variability of IT service quality is so unpredictable and even inconsistent from the same organisations? A market rife with cowboy operators and practices driving prices down and undermining any establishment of a price to quality ratio, a marketplace where business is on its own when trying to select an IT supplier, reliant on references or the self-serving vagaries of Vendor certification.

This is a two way issue, IT Practitioners and practices lacking any structured professional development or training context cannot hope to establish a consistent baseline set of disciplines from which specialisations can be fostered and forged. A disturbing basis for a career, in a sector which is amongst the fastest moving, demanding, increasingly important and innovative. IT reaches into all corners of society and business, and the market is growing.

Is it a wonder when IT practitioners get defensive when technology change challenges their positions, they are adrift in a ‘Profession’ that provides no security in continuity, guidance or baseline orientation. It is no surprise to note there was a drop of 43% in the number of students taking A-levels in computing and drop off in the uptake of Computing degrees over the last five years by 50% according to the UKES eSkills Survey. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that Students have no framework to mature their skills when looking at other disciplines, or security of continuous professional development to protect their career investment into the future, they certainly have no trusted Institute or other august body to refer to and feel confident that they are setting their sales on a solid career path.

If there is one thing the European Political and Regulatory engine could do it could set some wheels in motion. Perhaps provide the sponsorship and validation in the early days to encourage the establishment of a Community wide IT Institute. It is not far from the ambitions of the EU anyway with aspirations of an MIT of Europe. Just a different approach, a European approach, one that could utilise established ICT courses commonly delivered by Universities; but with a new level of discipline, governance and continuous professional development that raises the ‘Profession’ above its current Vendor silos of certifications.

It’s not as if they would have to start from scratch. The British Computer Society has already established a Chattered Institute of IT, and we can always refer to the other more historic Institutes. As a Chartered Member of the BCS IT Institute I regretfully feel it has however languished largely in obscurity. It is promotion and adoption by the market that is required to get something of its ilk and aspiration to fruition. Something EU sponsorship and adoption would be quiet capable of doing. After all ICT projects are fielded out every day and a new qualification requirement would drive adoption.

I’m not talking about raising barriers, I am talking about raising standards, leading by example and setting the pace instead of playing catch up. Europe may not have a Google or a Microsoft but we have the potential of being THE birthplace and region for measurable and accountable quality in the ICT profession.

A quality and governance of IT practitioners and practices that gives visibility to ordinary businesses. Clarity as to who is and who is not professional, frighteningly absent in the market at present. Visibility as to who has and who has not invested in the skills and governance that will ensure that when they are engaged on ‘Professional’ terms that the services received will be to a standard, and if not there is an accountable body who will take action to ensure it does not repeat itself. There is no central governing body that can validate whether company A or Person B is reputable, whether they have a baseline standard of competence to do what they say they can or not, or to receive and manage complaints to ensure the interest of the customer are protected.

This new age of learning to enter an ICT Profession of the future goes beyond the traditional skills demanded of technology, but across the traditional business domains of business management, contract law, accounting, health and safety and compliance obligations. Many technology Companies set up in practice in good faith but with little or no true competence or system in place to protect the interest of their customers. Common areas of failing include:

· Data regulations and obligations – Protection of customer data and often their customer’s customer data.

· Contractual engagement – Projects are rarely subject to any contractual discipline, leaving customers holding software they don’t own the IP to amongst other questionable practices.

· Professional Indemnity – This is a challenge even for the Insurance industry that has no benchmark as a result policies are complex, heavily caveated and costly, few IT companies seem to carry it.

· Client funds – maintenance of a client account to protect client funds paid in advance often on annual contracts for services still to be worked off. If not and the company folds the funds get swept up by the banks.

The need for maturity in the IT industry is ever more important as Cloud Computing starts to move IT Companies closer to extensions of customers businesses. Google, Amazon and Microsoft amongst others with their Cloud offerings are in effect now the IT departments for many organisations and individuals. Whilst these big players can afford to get and maintain expensive industry ISO/BS/SAS and other certifications to prove their competence smaller suppliers cannot and do not, yet will commence servicing customers in an increasingly co-dependent way and the customers will have no idea what they are exposing themselves to.

This is not a one way thing either. ICT practices and practitioners are overdue for some stability and certainty in the industry. If not only form a price point. The uncertainty and range of pricing across the spectrum of services is laughable, when I reflect on my days as a Chartered Surveyor operating alongside Lawyers and Accountants, where there was a clear and consistent established fee scale for common services, within tolerances. Fee’s levied at a fair and consistent rate for a professional job backed by a degree of protection and certainty in the quality of deliverable for the customer. The fact that the fee’s may be challenged as high are not due to profiteering but simply an investment return in delivering to a standard; a standard that in the medium and long term customers respect and take comfort in and respect albeit begrudgingly sometimes.

If we are going to respond to the changing times currently driven by Cloud Computing amongst other economic factors it is time IT aspired to be a true ‘Profession’. To provide businesses reliant on their services and product with a clear trustmark, and practitioners a secure home/institute/association within which they can in comfort commit to as a career in an environment of respectable value exchange and security.

The time is right, and whilst this will not happen overnight it needs to start now and ride the wave of current demand and change. The demand is clearly out there, certification is on the agenda of most IT trade association or working group as they struggle in an incoherent and fragmented way with the market demand for credible recognition; and regulators have it firmly on their agenda, recognising the economic imperatives of a mature trustmark in the ICT market space. The approach needed is a core and branch revitalisation establishing a foundation IT profession, not a plethora of point remedies with no cohesion, but a basis on which specialisation can be anchored and evolve reliably in a formal governance structure.

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