Standards and the IT profession

In response to my recent article "Fewer CS Majors Not a Big Concern," a reader wrote that "the systems that support today's businesses do require highly skilled, experienced professionals to design, develop, enhance and maintain them." He went on to argue that the best way to ensure that a company has highly skilled technical professionals is to hire computer science graduates.

I completely agree that today's businesses require highly skilled, experienced professionals. I remain unconvinced that hiring computer science degree holders is the best way to achieve that. At my firm, roughly half of my technical staff graduated with English or other liberal arts degrees, and the other half have computer science, mathematics, MIS or other technical degrees. A smaller number have both, with either an undergraduate liberal arts degree and a technical master's degree or vice versa. I've found no correlation between degree and competency.

I'd rather have an independent-studies major who can work exceptionally hard to stay on top of technology changes, communicate well and think clearly than many of the computer science majors who elected to reply to my last column. One reader who identified himself as a computer science Ph.D. even accused me of being an academic on the basis that the word education is part of the name of the company I work for. That's an example of not thinking clearly and not communicating well. A few seconds on Google would have left that reader with a very different impression.

I have found not only that a computer science degree is optional, but also that many successful technologists don't have any degree at all. I've had great employees who never finished college, and I've had wonderful employees who have multiple master's degrees. Unlike other professions, such as accounting, law or medicine, technology has no uniformly accepted professional studies that must be completed before one can practice.

Passing the bar does not make one a good lawyer. It does prove, however, that an individual has demonstrated an ability to meet the minimum standards established by a professional body. In addition, the professions of accounting, law and medicine require lifelong continuous education in order to meet their professional criteria.

Many attempts have been made at creating certificate or professional programs in technology. A few, namely those sponsored by vendors, have proved to be popular, in part because they are useful in demonstrating that an individual has mastered a particular topic.

But it's no surprise that our profession doesn't have a universally accepted professional program. We are in a very young discipline. Many of the standards for law and medicine date to ancient Greece and India. The first accounting standards began with a book written by Luca Pacioli in 1494. In comparison, the first modern computer arrived in the middle of the 20th century. Programming standards followed after that. We've been at this for only about 50 years, and it will probably take another 50 years to mature to the level where universally adopted practices are required.

In addition, law, accounting and medicine have universal standards in part because incompetence in those fields can ruin people's lives or livelihoods. Unfortunately, as we've seen with 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, we often need a disaster to drive people to do what they need to do. It may take a catastrophic technical problem for society to require technical certifications. In the meantime, I'll keep my experienced, skilled staff members, regardless of their degrees.

Virginia Robbins is CIO and managing director at Chela Education Financing in San Francisco. Contact her at v_m_robbins@yahoo.com.

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