Is there an IT profession?

Professional perspectives

I’ve been working in the IT field for more than 30 years. My career began with advanced degrees in mathematics. That formal education didn’t prepare me for work in the field, but the mental training has put me in good stead. I took only one short course on computing. Everything else I learned on the job, or through the design and delivery of courses.

I have long thought of myself as professional. I’m committed to acting in certain ways. I will use this column in the weeks and months ahead to discuss what it means to me to be a professional – and what it means to my clients. That doesn’t mean, however, that I see myself as a member of a duly recognized profession. It does mean that my actions are bound by my professional code of conduct.

The fundamental commitment of professionals is to hold the interests of their clients as paramount. When the professional recommends or advises, it must always be with the best interests of the client mind. (I use the word client – others could equally well use the words patient or employer.)

Harvey Gellman, one of Canada’s first computer consultants, captured the idea with his admonition, “The client is king!” I learned a great deal from Gellman, and “The client is king” was always in the forefront of his professional work. Putting the client first makes excellent, long-term business sense for the professional. It worked for Gellman, and it works for me. It’s a necessary part of being trustworthy.

Being trustworthy also means confining your work to areas where you have relevant experience and expertise. This doesn’t mean you never undertake new kinds of work. It does, however, mean that you must have (at least some) relevant knowledge and experience before undertaking new work. This can lead to leapfrogging – using your knowledge and experience in one area to gain knowledge and experience in related areas.

Next on my list of important professional commitments is transparency – in other words, say what you are going to do, then do what you say. This follows Gellman’s, “No surprises!” admonition. Transparency means you bring to the client’s attention any of your business dealings that might raise conflict of interest concerns. The professional needs to exercise judgment about what must be revealed, but the intent is clear.

Those three commitments go a long way toward making the professional trustworthy, and trustworthiness is basic to being a professional. I have a long-standing commitment to this form of professional trustworthiness. This allows me to call myself a professional. Being a member in good standing of a duly recognized profession is quite a different thing.

Recognized professions, such as law and medicine, demand trustworthiness. They also require demonstrated mastery of a defined body of knowledge, apprenticeship under an established member of the profession, and conformity to established practices. We’re far from having a meaningful body of knowledge that covers the IT field, nor do we have an apprenticeship scheme – co-op work is about as close as we come. And we do not (yet) agree on what should be established practice in IT.

We’re some distance from having the ingredients necessary to develop an IT profession. But we can make a commitment to being trustworthy – that commitment is the reason I see myself as a professional. I would like to see everyone in IT make a similar commitment.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant based in Toronto.

He can be contacted at