Should the IT profession be regulated?

Back in the late 1990s when I did a stint as a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) for a few years, just about every man and his dog was trying to get his MCSE certification. Apologies — there were a few women in the courses I taught, but by and large the IT profession was heavily male-dominated way back then.

What attracted these mostly midlife career changers (men who had lost their jobs due to corporate mergers and restructuring) was the carrot of being highly employable in a rapidly growing field: the IT profession. Unfortunately, the carrot proved elusive for many candidates pursing IT as a possible career. This happened for several reasons.

Rise and fall of IT certifications

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A big problem in the beginning with IT pro certifications like the coveted MCSE was that they were achieved by passing a set of multiple-choice exams. This made cheating relatively easy, and a number of companies quickly sprang up that enabled you to purchase a collection of self-test questions, some of which were similar to and sometimes even identical to actual questions on real MCSE exams. The flood of “paper MCSEs” that resulted where certification holders could accurately answer test questions without having any real understanding of what either the questions or their answers meant quickly caused a devaluation of the MCSE designation in the eyes of prospective employers. When Microsoft pushed back against such companies, new ones sprung up offering “boot camps” that provided concentrated “hands-on” training toward exam preparation, but supplemented of course with lots of instructor-led rote learning (think of exam tutoring classes for first-year Calculus students at university).

Added to all this was the big mistake Microsoft initially made when they created their MCSE certification, as this originally stood for “Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.” (Note: I actually proudly wore a pin in my suit lapel that trumpeted this when I used to teach MCSE courses as an MCT. But at least I have an undergraduate physics degree, and I do have a few friends who have P. Eng. degrees.)

Anyway, here in Canada, the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE) along with several provincial licensing bodies quickly notified Microsoft that they were violating laws in different jurisdictions by allowing successful MCSE candidates to use the word “engineer” in their titles. Microsoft eventually complied by changing what MCSE means to Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert. But this raises a question: Should there be an accredited regulatory body that licenses individuals who want to work in IT?

The push for regulating IT

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Some think so. Here in Canada we have a nonprofit organization called the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) that represents thousands of IT professionals and administers a certification called Information Systems Professional (ISP) that is recognized as a self-regulating designation by six out of 10 of our provincial governments. CIPS itself is also a member organization of both the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) and the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP), and the mere existence of these regulatory agencies confirms a growing trend toward greater “professionalism” for our rapidly evolving and frequently chaotic IT profession.

The key issue here is what constitutes professionalism. I like how CIPS defines this as “a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to high ethical standards and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognized, organized body of learning derived from specialized education and training.” They continue by suggesting that “inherent in this definition is the idea that the responsibility for the welfare, health, and safety of the community takes precedence over personal considerations.”

Arguing against regulation

Who could argue with that? Well, having talked with many IT pro colleagues with various degrees of expertise and different levels of responsibility, I can definitely say that some don’t agree with this definition. Or more properly, they agree completely with its goals but disagree that a professional organization like CIPS is required to ensure achievement of such goals. Those of us who are working for governmental agencies or for large enterprises tend to accept the necessity of the IT profession being an organized and self-governing body of qualified professionals that’s mandated by statutory regulations for the public good. After all, what’s the problem with needing some extra paper work and more letters after your name if it helps you get and keep a good-paying job?

I’m being cynical here, but IT pros in general tend to be a rather cynical lot. I mean, who can’t be cynical nowadays considering how Microsoft has been playing fast and loose with privacy in Windows 10?

On the other hand, I believe it is right for IT pros to have a responsible attitude toward the general public — even if the trend in the hardware and software vendor and service provider communities seems to be governed almost exclusively by mantras like “get in, get paid, get out” instead of “build it right”.

Not everyone needs credentials

While it’s tempting to compare the largely unregulated IT profession with the widely licensed engineering profession, it’s possible to draw some wrong conclusions from such a comparison. For example, one might assume that only professionally licensed engineers (individuals holding the P.Eng. designation here in Canada) have the legal right to perform engineering work.

But this is not the case. As the CCPE site itself indicates, “you can still work in engineering — even if you haven’t been licensed by a professional engineering association — as long as you are supervised by a professional engineer (P.Eng.).” I’m not exactly sure, but I assume that it’s up to the supervising P.Eng. to determine what it means to be “supervised” in any given engineering project.

Which brings me to my final point. Given the rapid evolution of IT technologies, services, and products, maybe what we need for IT pros instead of a self-governing regulatory organization is something more akin to a medieval guild. Confraternities of tradespersons who exchange skills and knowledge for the advancement of their own businesses but without the energy-draining paperwork and politics of modern top-down regulatory bodies. Flexible forms of apprenticeship with novices working toward becoming masters of their art. Because IT nowadays is still more of an art than a science — at least that’s how I see it.

 

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