by Chris Puttick

Defining IT as a profession

Apr 26, 2010
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

I have a dream. A dream in which IT leaders would reach such heady heights of respect that we would be listed among those considered respectable enough to counter-sign passport applications, where it would be normal to have someone with a skill mix including IS/IT at a senior management level… The anecdotes that follow not only illustrate the topic in their own right but, as both occurred since I started writing this article, demonstrate the breadth of the challenge facing us.

I was attending a meeting of the Open Forum Europe Public Sector Working Group, and there was a discussion regarding the marketing budget difficulties facing open-source software solutions. Someone mentioned the success of the virtual learning environment (VLE) Moodle, in common use in UK schools despite a non-existent marketing budget. Having worked in education around the time Moodle was first adopted, and as one of the early adopters, I pointed out that it happened at a time when VLEs were almost unheard of in schools. Someone immediately asked: ‘so how did you know about Moodle?’

The second anecdote is more of an observation of a small advert I have come across in several online publications relating to the profession. Here’s an edited version: “Time is money, so why spend hours surfing the web for enterprise IT content, tech news, analysis, product reviews, vendor updates, and how-to’s? Get what you need – all from one place to turbo-charge your IT and business efficiency.”

And for those who haven’t seen it, the advert links to a website run by a major software vendor.

So what have these two things got in common with the subject matter?

Well, the former is due to my immediate thought in response to the question: it was my job to know. I was an IS management specialist working in the schools sector (a rarity then and now) so it was my duty to learn about developments and solutions pertaining to that sector, while applying my general IS skills and experience to the challenges of the schools with which I worked. The latter is simpler: I cannot imagine anything less professional than to use a vendor-funded website as your sole source of information regarding anything.

They have something else in common: that the question was asked and the advert created were representative of the outsider’s view of our activities. Doesn’t come across as a positive view, does it? If in a meeting I, as a lawyer, had spoken of my involvement in a new legal development, no-one would have asked how I had known of the development. And I’m not sure what the parallel is for the other: a major pharmaceutical company creating a site about medical developments and placing an advert in The Lancet suggesting doctors should just look there for their information?

Taken together, these suggest that what we do is not being seen as a profession and that there seems to be an expectation that those working in the area are not to be expected to act professionally.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionarydefines ‘professional’ thus:

a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession; b : engaged in one of the learned professions; c (1) : characterised by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession; (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.

The professional careers as we understand them today were recognised around the 17th century. A profession is that of an individual, normally their way of generating income, currently or in the past; membership of a profession is effectively restricted and regulated. A profession is necessarily exclusive, either through law or through the need for education beyond a normal degree, and entrance into the profession is competitive, ensuring membership tends towards the right side of the IQ bell-shaped curve. Professions have professional associations, generally one per specialist area, as opposed to unions; this is partly about a professional attitude, partly about numbers. Professions tend to be the smaller proportion of any given population, service-providing partnerships- aside, and striking for higher collective pay just isn’t “professional”.

IT should be working towards the status and rigorous entry requirements of solicitors, surgeons and accountants: not a weird and impossible all-inclusive ‘IT profession’ but a more realistic and effective series of specialisms. Specifically, I’m talking about the readership of this magazine. We need IS management to become a profession in its own right, with membership aimed at those who are or who intend to become IS managers at the most senior level. This is a group which can work for better recognition of the jobs we do, influence regulation and ensure that only those who can do the job are actually doing it; to demonstrate the value of IS management as a profession, even a vocation.

Cries for IT professionalism go back decades but don’t seem to have been answered. Those cries have never been properly framed, however and as a result there has not been a coherent group to respond to the calls. This is for the simple reason that IT is not one distinct profession and hasn’t been for decades, if ever.

IT is no more one big profession than is health. People within the health sector work towards a common cause but they bring to that different skills and responsibilities in massively varying job roles. Different roles are as a result treated differently: nurses have the Royal College of Nursing, surgeons and doctors have their own royal colleges and the General Medical Council overall; pharmacists have the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (and soon the General Pharmaceutical Council) and various specialisms have their own professional bodies. A professional body for the ‘health profession’ doesn’t exist because it would make no sense: the skill mixes are too varied, the ethical requirements are different and the peer support network would be useless.

We need to be part of a professional body working towards restricting and regulating membership, with competitive entry controlled through a need for specialist education beyond a normal degree. We also need to accept the meaning of being IS management professionals. The job is not supposed to get easier as you progress, continuous learning is required, there must be a continuous drive to reduce costs and add value, and risk must be managed. The upsides will be numerous, though mostly qualitative. In the end, higher comparative pay may be a result for some but a higher status should result for most. About the author:

Chris Puttick is CIO of Oxford Archaeology, one of Europe’s largest independent archaeology practices. He is also on the Council of IMIS (, a group that promotes the profession of IS management