Reputations at stake

David Hartley says there should be professional standards for information systems staff, who are developing projects on which human safety depends

In the old days boffins worked among piles of electronic magic in the basement to run central mainframe computers sealed off from the rest of the world.

But today end-users have spreadsheet programs to model their business – in effect powerful programming languages in their own right – plus tools to do clever things with graphics, consumer magazines, and high-street shops to tempt them into buying the latest technology.

Traditionally, a profession has been defined as having an agreed body of knowledge and skills; one or more institutions maintaining codes of conduct and ensuring that only suitably qualified people can practise; and public recognition of the professional status of the members.

But in information systems (IS), the spread of IT and the ease of use of many IT products means that the body of knowledge that forms part of the profession is being diffused to consumers.

At the same time, the dominance of certain products at the technical end, such as Microsoft operating systems, means that employers of IS specialists tend to be more interested in certificates of competence awarded by the product suppliers, than in independent professional qualifications.

However, IS people develop systems that control aircraft, medical equipment, nuclear power stations – putting the safety of human lives in their hands.

But still they do not have to be as professionally qualified as accountants or lawyers to develop such systems. Small wonder, perhaps, that IS has such an appalling record of project failure.

IS becomes a slippery thing to define because it overlaps all the other work disciplines. However, it is worth working on pinning down the essential standards that are required to do the job properly.

That means getting professional status for information systems engineers, on whom every aspect of business, government, education and public services depend. The goal is to ensure that projects meet with far greater success and reliability than has traditionally been the case.

Getting professional recognition for any engineering sector is a long and slow process. Information Systems is a relatively young profession, having been born only 50 years ago. But if the critical nature of a sector’s work is the argument for to it becoming a profession, there can surely be no better candidate than IS.

Hence the work of the British Computer Society, which has been leading this campaign to boost professional recognition for engineers who have met rigorously-defined standards for its membership grades.

Meanwhile, the BCS has also launched an overhaul of its membership structure, qualifications and joining procedures to make it more attractive to IT staff, without compromising standards. This work, which started last year, has already helped take membership to its highest point, to well over 37,000.

That is surely good news if it helps to stop the ill-trained IT `specialists’ from ruining our reputations.

David Hartley is president of the British Computer Society