Information Technology – trade or profession?

A subject that has generated some lively discussions recently is the perception of IT as a whole. Is IT merely a trade or is it a true profession??

Of course, this requires some sort of definition of these terms. I have done quite a bit of research into these two terms and have finally narrowed it down to the following:

TRADE: A skilled job, typically one requiring primarily manual skills and special training.

PROFESSION: A calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation with continued learning during the practice of the profession.

One comparison I found online said it best in my opinion:

“Profession vs trade – A professional is an individual who has gone to college and often professional school or university in order to learn the technical background of a complex job. A tradesperson is someone who has been trained in a particular trade that more often than not uses more physical skill and dexterity. Professionals are doctors, lawyers, accountants, economists, professors, teachers, etc. Tradespeople are carpenters, auto mechanics, electricians, beauticians, waitresses and waiters, etc.”

In addition to the above, I also believe that there are other defining elements that serve to differentiate the two terms. For example, I believe that a trade does not embody any responsibility to ‘the public good’. This in no way implies that tradespeople do not care about their trade. On the contrary, most tradespeople I am familiar with take great pride in their trade and perform it to the highest standards.

The point I am trying to make in this case is – a tradesperson who does not perform his/her function with care and causes some type of failure, rarely has the effect of causing widespread damage to society as a whole. Of course, there ARE exceptions, but thankfully these are not overly common. In addition, most trades do not embody incredibly complex technologies, and their basics can usually be understood by laymen. For example, tradesmen such as carpenters; plumbers; and electricians require comprehensive training to carry out all of the functions they may be called on in the course of practising their trade. However, I know of many ‘handymen’ who, while not fully trained in any of these skills, nevertheless manage to do completely acceptable jobs in many of these areas.

A profession, on the other hand, often requires highly specialized training as well as the ongoing training required due to continuous and constant changes in the profession, and is rarely understood by those not specifically trained in that profession. In addition, lack of understanding in a profession can have serious effects on the public as a whole. A good example of this is the medical profession, which constantly changes and requires constant study by its practitioners regardless of their individual specialty within the profession. The same can be said of the profession of law, in which new precedents and changing governmental regulations provides a constantly moving target for the professional.

An acquaintance of mine put it to me this way: “The way I like to put it, a professional is a practitioner who, though his/her personal commitment, and though enforcement by their peers, puts the public, and their clients’, good ahead of their own personal gain.” In this simple statement, he said it better than I could.

I believe that Information Technology is unique in that it embodies elements of BOTH terms. In its simplest form, IT can embody simple ‘break-fix’ operations that do not require a high degree of training or an in-depth understanding of the underlying technologies.

Like a ‘handyman’ carpenter, most untrained or semi-trained individuals in IT are quite capable of basic troubleshooting of a computer, and changing boards, drives, etc. are not overly difficult tasks. On the other hand, designing and installing a network PROPERLY, takes an in-depth understanding of the technologies involved, and often involves a thorough understanding of the needs of the business or other entity that wants the system designed for them. It also requires a comprehensive understanding of new or emerging technologies that may have an effect on the system design or requirements in the near future.

Of course, no one in IT has a ‘crystal ball’ to ensure that their solution will meet ALL future needs or technological changes, but a properly trained IT professional can, and usually does, try to take all aspects of IT technology and a clients’ needs into account as much as possible.

This leads me to an essential aspect of professionalism that I think is defining – that of ETHICS. Every profession that regulates its members has as an integral part of its requirements, a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. This is true of doctors, lawyers, accountants and all professions that I am aware of. The reasoning behind these codes is to provide a framework to protect ‘the PUBLIC interest’, and guarantee any client or employer that such professionals live up to the highest level of ETHICS and INTEGRITY possible.

Further, these codes are usually backed up by some sort of professional association that oversees the professional aspects of a given profession. There are disciplinary committees, whose function is to enforce those codes and protect the public from unethical practices, including the practicing of an area of competency within a profession that one is not fully trained for. While most professions have such bodies and often professional recognition is mandated by law in those professions, the same cannot be said of IT.

Sooner or later, the government is going to recognize that in today’s business environment, the amount of damage that can be done by unqualified (or semi-qualified) individuals in the IT profession is such that they will be forced to make such professional recognition mandatory, at least for the highest levels in the IT profession – those that design complex systems or their supporting infrastructure. We have already seen countless cases of businesses damaged or even destroyed by failed IT projects, and even the government itself has not been immune to massive financial losses due to failed IT projects.

This must be seen as a ‘call to action’ for those Canadian IT professionals that DO ascribe to a high level of professionalism and want to further the cause of promoting Information Technology as a PROFESSION. We must act before governments introduce legislation that may be to the detriment of the IT profession.

The Canadian Information Processing Society, which has been operating since 1958, has a Registered Professional designation which is recognized by law in Canada. The I.S.P. (Information Systems Professional of Canada) designation.

Canada’s only legally recognized designation for IT professionals, I.S.P. status provides clients and employers with trusted assurance of an IT professional’s knowledge and technical background. I.S.P. standing has been granted in Canada since 1989, and is legislated as a self-regulating professional designation in six provinces, with other provinces working toward similar legislation.  The I.S.P. is supported by a comprehensive Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct which is enforced by appropriate disciplinary committees, made up of senior members of the IT community.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
William Turgeon
William Turgeon
William has been in the computer industry since 1970, first working on industrial process controllers as a Certified Electronics Technologist. He worked with early 'personal computers' (pre-IBM) like the Osborne; TRS-80's and Kaypro's, and trained in networking with WANG PC’s in the early 1980’s, and Novell in 1985. Since then, William has been involved in the IT industry as a Professional Consultant, Senior Systems Engineer and Technical Architect. He holds a BSc. in Computer Engineering and also holds a large number of trade certifications including: Microsoft - MCP; MCP+I; MCSE; MCSE+I; MCDST; MCDBA; MCTS & MCITP Novell - CNA; CNE; ECNE & MCNE CompTIA - A+; Network+; iNet+; Server+; Project+ & Security+. He is ITIL certified and is also a SFIA Accredited Consultant. Finally, he holds the Registered Professional designations, I.S.P. and ITCP, issued by the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS). He currently contracts as ComputerWise Consulting Inc.

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