Worldwide there is an overall IT professional accreditation spreading, in the UK (CITP), Europe, the USA, Australia and other places. Not before time.
For too long IT managers have accepted poor documentation, subverted change control and general ill-discipline from IT technical staff simply because they held the sacred knowledge about the technology under their care.
The understanding is emerging that the long-term health of IT depends more on professional behaviour: good process, good data, good record-keeping... a good culture amongst the staff. There is less patience with the prima-donnas and the cowboys.
There have always been professionals in our industry, sprinkled about like gold flakes in the gravel. And other IT people have often meant well but been ill-equipped for the task.
And yes there have been those who exploited the immaturity of the system: the ethically and motivationally challenged who went for a ride. They blew their school years and they don't like to work hard, but they were blessed with brains. So they are smart enough to bluff their way in to the high-paying positions of our industry.
However a sea change is underway in the IT industry. Leading the way are the project managers and system testers, who have had formal bodies of knowledge and accreditation for some time. Now it is the audit and security professionals, and the ITSM practitioners with emerging ITIL and ISO20000 accreditation and the first baby steps of professional organisations.
We still have a long way to go to meet the levels of best practice set by other industries, such as engineering, medicine or architecture. A professional is measured by three attributes: their attitude, development and ability.
Why do dentists promote oral hygiene? A doctor wants to keep you alive as long as possible to maximise revenue, but why should a dentist care how you look after your teeth, other than to create a more pleasant work environment? In fact the more you rot them the more they fill them.
Because they are professionals. First and foremost a professional acts in the best interests of their customer, not themselves.
And why are dentists expensive? Cheap dentists are rare and don't stay around long, because customers want a quality job when someone is working inside their skull. The second attitude of professionals is a commitment to a quality result.
Actually, that is the third. The second attitude is commitment to a result. Professionals want to build something, want to see their work completed, want to deliver an outcome to their customer/employer.
Finally professionals tend to be tidy. They cover all the details, tie up loose ends, seek completeness (, bury the bodies).
The term "engineer" is bandied about the IT industry at times, but almost nobody in our IT industry is an engineer.
A real engineer has a tertiary qualification. If they really want to be taken seriously they have at least a Master's degree. They studied physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics, programming, CAD/drafting, first aid. They studied other branches of engineering as well as their own so that they understand the basics of electronics, mechanics, optics, hydrology, and so on. They spent three or four years or more learning their trade, including practical experience. Many failed.
A real engineer doesn't come straight out of university and design a hydroelectric dam. They serve apprenticeship, working with senior engineers to prove their mettle. Once they have enough experience and some good referees, engineers seek accreditation by their professional body.
Only then are they a real engineer.
And if they screw up, or bring the profession into disrepute, they will lose that accreditation.
To me, the engineering profession sets our benchmark for professional development. Engineers are entrusted with millions of dollars of other people's money in order to build complex systems. Many of these systems impact the well-being and safety of the public. Most of them are critical in some way to an organisation, and they either work or they don't.
Sound familiar? The difference is that engineers' mistakes stand as a rusting monument to their incompetence, whereas IT mistakes disappear in a puff of money.
The best way to assess someone's ability is to ask their peers. The best way to do that is via professional accreditation, but we still do not have a lot of that in the IT industry. The worst way to assess is to ask the person, but if all else fails you can look at that great work of fiction - their CV. Ask them what they delivered, what they really did. Stop being impressed by years clocked up or technologies touched. More on this in a moment.
We should not settle for any less professionalism (attitude, development and proven ability) in the person we entrust with a multimillion-dollar IT project than we expect in the person who is responsible for the steel beam to hold up the foyer roof, or the electrical system that runs through the building, or the train we ride to work.
Yet we do. IT has an alarming propensity for giving anyone a go. The standards will not rise until the consumers of IT services demand it. So look for professionals.
How to find a professional
Professionalism shows outwardly in a person's presentation. Boffins, geeks and geniuses might be vague and rumpled, but professionals aren't. Professionals are tidy, orderly, literate, self-confident. They have good interpersonal skills. So make sure you interview candidates in person. Ask them to write something and to present it.
If you are stuck with the CV as the only evidence of their ability, examine what they did personally. People who have "three years experience with Novell networks" or "worked as a systems engineer" have not done anything. Find out what projects they were personally responsible for - what they delivered. Ask tough questions to probe as to what the outcomes were. Beware of a pattern of leaving before the project ended. Real professionals want to see the conclusion. Check references.
Give preference to professional accreditation where it exists. Call for and encourage new professional bodies. Push for change.
The new professionalism
The situation is changing. Organisations such as local computer societies and others are offering real accreditation. Universities (sometimes) offer degrees that mean something useful to the industry. The industry is attracting more professional people.
We have a very long way to go to match the standards of engineers and doctors. There needs to be international standards of tertiary qualification, and better courses offered by the universities. There needs to be international networks of accreditation.
Most of all there must be much higher expectations set of the people we entrust with these huge projects.
What shall we call IT professionals? Personally, I like Information Engineer. But lock that name up in legislation just as other professions have done, otherwise everyone in IT will have it on their business card as next year's replacement for "Senior Consultant".