IT professionalism

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”.


Try this idea for one out of the box

Instead of the government gathering 40% taxes on wages, if you take on an apprentice, you get the equivalent of 10% of the salary (from the tax dollars not the apprentices salary) as compensation. You can take on a maximum of 3 apprentices, but you would be very motivated to get them earning valuable dollars.. Plus you get it for as long as they are filing tax returns, which means it could take some load of the retirement issue..

Once you have served the apprenticeship you remain a mentee of the person, but you become a professional. 10 years as a professional and you can take an apprentice.

Obviously accreditation for the program is needed and alot of details.

A thought :)

Brad Vaughan


As well as a commitment to developing a body of knowledge and improving practice, professionals are defined by their adherence to an ethical code. Doctors have the hippocratic oath, those working in the law have similar ethical underpinnings, teachers are bound by strong ethics.

IT professionals have no such code.

Interestingly the profession of management as a whole lacks this as well. An excellent study of the development of managerialism that calls for a recommitment to an ethical basis for the profession is "From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession" by Rakesh Khurana. It's a year or so since I read it but, if memory serves it would be a helpful study for anyone interested in promoting professionalism in the field of IT.

Alex Jones

professional code of conduct

Powerful point Alex, thankyou.

I am currently pursuing the New Zealand equivalent of UK's CITP. basic character checks, code of conduct, peer referees all part of accreditation

of course business ethics are around honesty while medicine are around do no harm. Nothing wrong with doing honest harm to a competitor in business :)

Aren't ethics built in ?

Most people work under some form of Ethical Framework.. Employees have employment contracts which have binding ethical statements, independent contractors normally are working under the legal framework of "ethical business practice" for which violation can be pursued in the courts.

Does the Hippo Oath actually prevent fraudulent and non-ethical medical practices. Sitting here in the US, its not obvious. Ditto for the legal profession. When they are caught, they are not persecuted under the ethics code, but under the legal framework.

I find these ethics codes a little fuzzy in practical terms. They do contribute to a shared vision of professionalism and create the concept of professional conduct. Perhaps the better thing is not a "Code of Ethics" but a standardized definition of what is a "Professional". I think this is how the Engineering Profession does it.

Ethics are something you build as part of growing up, before you even get to a profession. If you don't have them by then, you don't have them (barring life changing event).

Brad Vaughan


The importance of a professional ethical framework is that it is created by the profession and owned by them. Ethical clauses in contracts are very different as they are imposed by the employer as a condition of employment. A professional code of ethics should be designed by the association of professionals and enforced by them. The General Medical Council in the UK strikes doctors off for infringing the ethical code they enforce. So the Hippocratic Oath doesn't stop unethical conduct. This looks to me like a dangerously high standard to set for deciding whether or not to take action to limit human behaviour. By this standard there'd be no point in the police forces and lawcodes of any country as they don't prevent murders or robberies.

I hope you are not saying in your final point that adults are incapable of changing their attitudes, unless through 'life changing events'. Working in education I need to have a more optimistic approach to the perfectability of human beings. I'd argue the alternative view leads to some very dark and depressing places.

Alex Jones

Not sure how we got here

I got lost a little in your response.. I believe (personal belief) that ethics are the very thing you cannot enforce through a professional charter. Ethics and the law/law enforcement are very closely tied. I would like to see cases of doctors being struck by the UK Medical Council on ethical grounds that had not been the subject of some kind of legal action. A professional code should include items of conduct, but more in the areas of due diligence than ethics.

There are different parts to our personality, some core, some less so.. If you look at your personality traits and core beliefs, you will often find them a product of how you were raised. You spend 20 years in this environment and some of those core traits are very difficult to change. Its just a factor of time. I believe ethics are one, and something dramatic has to happen to break this 20 years of personal development before you reach the point of professional ethics. People can change, the degree of change (core vs. non-core) is linked to the motivation (desire vs. life changing event), and I don't think signing a ethical contract is motivation enough for something as core as ethics.

Too much more on this and we start needing psychologists :)

Brad Vaughan

Professional Ethics

A code of Ethics is a foundational element of a profession. Members of PMI, ISACA, and itSMF USA agree to abide by the organization's published Code of Ethics as a requirement to join or renew participation in those Professional Communities of Interest. A code alone is not enough. There must be a mechanism for complaint, adjudication, and resolution within the community. That was put in place in itSMF USA in 2007.
Along with the Code of Ethics, the other elements of a profession are: Body of knowledge, Research, Credentialing, Continuing Education, Individual and external recognition as a lifelong occupation. We are not there yet but progress is being made. External and internal recognition of ITSM as lifelong occupation may be the toughest one of these to achieve.

Mike Walter

Aren't Ethics Built In?

As a member of a chapter board of the Project Management Institute and a former military officer, ethics are very important to the profession of management from my perspective. However, I am too frequently disappointed in the sort of behaviors that I see even amongst the ranks of my fellow PMPs. I agree that IT has a long way to go in maturing as a profession in terms of ethics, project management even longer. Until companies and institutions such as PMI start to take serious their values and ethics statements, these conditions won't change and those statements are going to continue to be just words posted somewhere on a website as a percieved organizational requirement rather than the fabric of what that organization should be built upon. I suppose these lapses in "professionalism" are just a reflection of the general weakness in the ethical fiber of society as a whole. At least in the US there are signs of social decay rampant everywhere whether it's politicians blatantly flaunting their positions for personal gain or companies falsifying their financial records to dupe investors into another financial disaster. Leadership used to mean something in business, but today I can't find any semblance of the notion.

Here here

So a BIG +1 on the differentiation between accreditation and certification. Also a BIG +1 on the concept of apprenticeship, a personal belief of mine for all true professions (this is also one of my personal beefs with practicioners of General or Family Medicine).

The greeks had the concept of education down pat and the French went a ruined it by inventing the University.

Professionalism has its genealogy, and you should be able to track down a consultants capability through there associations. Something a tool like LinkedIn could help with, but as yet as not delivered due to an over-arching desire to grab users.


Brad Vaughan

but wait, I forgot to disagree on something

-1 on the must have degree and high degree.. Even though I have them, I find the school/university system completely flawed.. Although they do exercise the brain in fundamental problem solving, its inefficient and wasteful of the human resource. If we could find someway of establishing apprenticeships at an earlier stage (ie. motivate the mentor to take the role) then the standard education system could just stick to the fundamentals and not try to be all things to all people.. More tradesman like than professional..

Brad Vaughan

From the land where degrees are venerated (but quite laughable)

I agree with buraddo: the university system, at least in Spain, is quite laughable; I do have a degree, precisely an IT engineering degree, but what it brought to me is not exactly "professionalism", it was not taught at any subject along the degree. And it would have been worth, as I see many of my colleagues and mates from college have a lack of professionalism, indeed. But in Spain universities are not faced to corporate world or industry needs, so their study guides have little or nothing to do with reality, and students get out of college and head right to local Deloitte HQ (or Accenture, Everis, whatever) with our degree (and nothing else but our degree) to offer. Companies should lead a revolution on high education demanding the university to breed the professionals they need.

In Spain a degree is adored and seen as a divine gift, but what does a degree really say about professional abilities (commitment to quality results, communication skills, etc.)? And what is worse, in Spain organisations professionalism is not rewarded, contrary to the cowboy-behaviour. And if you say that there is less patience with cowboys in prima-donnas, I assume you mean in the USA, England, Germany, NZ... so if it's happening now in those places, in Spain that will begin by 2019.

a culture issue

Like anything its a culture issue: the institution has to have a culture of professional training not academic inquiry. I went to Engineering School, a distinct campus within the university, totally different from the arts and science faculties. It was hard and serious, with strong traditions, higher levels of disipline, high workloads, and a total focus on vocation. THAT's engineering.

FWIW they expelled me after three years LOL Too ill-disciplined. I did learn a lot though about systems theory and energy and optics and electronics and physics and advanced maths and machine shop and so many other disiplines that added hugely to my broader understanding of the world. Wish I'd behaved myself now.

A few years later I got A grades in a Computer Science degree - it was a doddle in comparison.

but which decade Skep


I wouldn't attribute it to culture.. Culture does effects the efficiency of execution any organization, but it does not define the end product (for the most part). Its a matter of goaling and funding.. Universities do what they are funded to do.. A significant portion comes from the government per student, and the other major funding source is research grants.. So if you want to contain costs, you get the researchers to teach classes, which means you get research theory for courses.

The whole education path from Pre-school to post graduate is completely screwed up..Its aimed at some theoretical view of what society needs and is trying to keep up with a population that is getting smarter earlier, but wants to delay responsibility as long as possible. So education becomes baby sitting for adults post about 13 years of age.

But thats only one aspect. You could have a whole blog around this specific area. Sorry, spent too many years educating myself and working in the university sector, also have two siblings and a parent who are teachers.

Brad Vaughan

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