IT association says professional designation essential

As virtually every facet of Canadian society becomes increasingly dependent on computers, the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) hopes to demonstrate the need for IT workers to earn and maintain certification standards, similar to those of self-regulating professions like engineers or lawyers.

During CIPS’ first Information Systems Professionals (I.S.P.) Week – which started Monday – the 8,000-member organization hopes to raise awareness of its I.S.P. designation.

CIPS sees this designation as a way for both companies and the general public to identify professionals who have agreed to adhere to a code of ethics, and who have met a required level of education and professional experience.

With software guiding airplanes, administering 911 systems and maintaining most modern communications networks, people now want some assurance that these systems have been produced in a professional manner, and that somebody is responsible for it, said Dr. Les Oliver, the Wolfville, N.S.-based president of CIPS.

“It’s sort of like the birth of so many other professions, where people learn to do the various tasks associated with the field and begin doing them, but at some stage you have to get some structure to it…public interest suddenly becomes an issue”, Oliver said.

For those working in an industry that moves at a lightning pace, the annual re-qualification reminders mailed out by CIPS that ask about seminars attended, or technological skills acquired are a good career checkpoint, said Greg Sprague, executive director of integrated technology services at University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

“Personally, I want to be known as a professional in my field, and I think information technology is a field that’s in desperate need of professional workers who have the right training and certifications. We do very important work and when you interview someone, and hire someone, it’s nice to know that they have an interest in their career and they’ve invested the time and the energy to go through the process and to maintain their I.S.P.,” Sprague said.

Sprague would like to see IT develop a culture of professionalism – much like engineering – which starts at the same time as university training.

“It might scare a lot of people at the moment because so few have their I.S.P.…but I think it’s going to come eventually. We’re dealing with information that has to be private and secure, and has to be processed accurately, and I think down the road a few years you are going to have to have some certification before people are going to let you into their information and their systems,” he said.

Although the I.S.P. designation has gained wide acceptance in Alberta and New Brunswick, and made some headway in most provinces, some industry insiders are still leery of regulation and certification processes, said Wesley Nelson, former chief technology officer with, and now a Waterloo, Ont.-based consultant.

Nelson, who since beginning his software engineering career in 1987 has hired for, and been hired by, both large and small companies, understands the public’s desire for technology that won’t collapse like the infamous Tacoma Bridge example cited (and often screened) in high school physics classes. However, he said when crucial systems go bad, it is not usually the result of under-qualified or unprofessional individuals.

“Quite frankly, there are two things that contribute to ineffective or faulty software. One is management-oriented – the maturity of your processes to produce software – and that has a lot more to with your management and less to do with your software engineers. The second thing is how rigorous and dedicated the individuals are – and a certification process is not going to address those two things,” Nelson said.

“Being a good developer who produces tight, tolerant software is not about how much you know and how much you keep on top of current developments in the industry. It has more to do with your organization as a whole. So if people are worried about software having defects the same way bridges have defects it’s much more of a process problem, rather than an individual programmer’s problem. In fact, if you construct a shop that depends on having good people rather than having a good process you’re almost doomed to failure,” he added.

Oliver, who in his day job is a computer science professor at Acadia University, believes that high profile “computing disasters” can be a motivating factor for the CIPS I.S.P. initiative. As a field with its own specialized knowledge, he also believes that status would give IT workers, as a profession, a voice at the legislative level.

“As [information] systems become more pervasive there’s just a much greater need to make sure that things like the new privacy legislation are being managed in a responsible fashion. We hope that a program like the I.S.P. can be part of helping [policy] develop in the proper direction in Canada – so that if government is looking for an opinion from folks who are in the profession we are prepared to, and we do serve that role,” Oliver said.

CIPS in Ottawa is at