IT: Industry or profession?

I'm going to join the New Zealand Computer Society and I think that you should think about doing so too. We can whinge and whine about the NZCS, but if we want it to be truly representative then we have to be part of it.

How often do you think of the New Zealand Computer Society? I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of you rarely, if ever, think about it at all. I’m willing to bet that even those of you who do think about it don’t think it’d be impossible to ply your trade without its ever-watchful presence safeguarding both you and your customer or employer.

I don’t think the society has much relevance in your lives, unless you happen to be talking to a board member or a permanent member of staff. And if they don’t spend much time in our thoughts, then they simply have no relevance.

I don’t think this is the way it should be.

Earlier this month I presented at IDG’s CIO Conference in Auckland. It was a great event and I met some really nice people. I was surprised to find that I have regular readers even at that level of the industry.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion I had, though, was with John Pringle, who is the business development manager for the NZCS. It turns out that we share a passion (and not apparently just for good British ale). We’re both passionate about professionalism.

The term “professional” often confuses me – literally it means “for money”, but it carries many emotional connotations, and in the back of my mind I get pictures of lawyers and doctors. When you do hear the term it’s usually expressed negatively, as in “you’re acting unprofessionally”. In this case it means something like, “your behaviour is different from what I’m expecting”. This usually means that there is a set of expectations that haven’t been adequately communicated, and a relationship has broken down.

To remove this problem we really need a set of professional standards that everyone can adhere to. Then it’ll be okay to make assumptions. Without this we’re just in a mess and relationships will continue to break down because of unspoken assumptions.

I found that this was a problem when I first came to New Zealand. I came from London, where the standards of professional behaviour are different. Of course, it’s what you should expect; they are almost different worlds. For example, it’s normal in London for people to talk about money. It’s a game for contractors, and the one who gets paid the most wins. Over here a contractor can get fired for telling people how much she earns.

If the assumptions are clearly stated, they’re not assumptions any more. They become a code of professional standards that everyone can clearly agree to, or clearly state exceptions to.

There’s more to it than that, though. Take, for example, the practice of refactoring. Refactoring is an engineering best practice. There are no situations where it’s a good idea not to refactor. The techno-economic arguments for this are manifold and I won’t go into them here, so let’s just say that if you don’t believe me then you’re wrong.

So say one day you decide to start refactoring and your project tells you to stop it because it’s wasting time doing rework. The proper answer is, “No, I have a code of professional ethics that insist on me using best-practices and your request violates those standards. You may not understand why I’m doing this, but you can not stop me doing it.”

What happens when the manager of a surgical department announces that to save money she’s going to have the surgical instruments cleaned once a week rather than after each operation? The doctors say “no”.

What happens when you go to your chartered accountant to tell him that a client has just paid your last big bill, but you’d rather it didn’t go through the accounts because you’d like to buy a new car? The accountant says “no”.

We -- that is, people who work in the IT industry -- won’t be professionals until we learn to say “no".

I asked Pringle for a quotable quote on this point. He replied with:

"The NZCS may not be exactly what everybody wants, but it is the best available. If you want a professional body that is truly representative, then you must get on board. It is more professional to deliver constructive criticism from within than to deliver destructive knocks from without."

He was talking about me, to me, and through me. I’m as guilty as anyone for knocking the computer society. I find it to be irrelevant, and rather dull. This, it turns out is a mistake, because Pringle is right. I want professional standards, but I don’t want the NZCS. But that’s just childish. I don’t know whether it is the professional thing to do, but I do know that the mature thing to do is change the society, not criticise it.

There are a lot of problems within the NZCS. As a body purporting to represent a profession it has a very long way to go. The first objective of the society, as quoted in its constitution, is “to develop the practice and profession of information processing and its related disciplines in New Zealand”. It’s good to know that this is a profession; I thought it was just an industry.

I’d prefer it to say something like, “to work with other computer societies globally to create a formal definition of our profession and to work towards a set of useful ethics for that profession”.

Pringle has convinced me that it won’t change unless good people get in there and change it. So I’m going to join the NZCS, and I think that you should think about doing so too. Pringle is right -- we can whinge and whine about the NZCS, but if we want it to be truly representative then we have to be part of it. Otherwise it will always represent other people.

I hope the society’s ready for the onslaught -- it’s time it had a makeover.

Dollery is a Wellington IT consultant. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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