On The Job: Are Networkers Technicians or Professionals? Page 3

Deb Shinder

Are network administration and computer programming "professions?"

At first glance, IT occupations might seem to fit in the "quasi professional" category. Certainly specialized training is required, industry certification tests have been developed to provide a measure of one's ability, and plenty of IT pros make as much as or more money than doctors and lawyers.

Looking more closely, though, we find several elements of the professional model missing from the IT occupations. In fact, plumbers in most states meet more of the standards than the average net admin or software developer.

Organizations exist that allow IT workers to come together and share information and socialize. However, few tech employees belong to or participate in formal associations, and in any event, such membership is optional, not mandatory as is membership in the medical or bar association.

College? Many IT "professionals" have degrees, but it's certainly not necessary. Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are prime examples of that, making it to the top of the IT world and earning titles as two richest men in the world as college drop-outs.

A glaring omission is the lack of an IT industry code of ethics. Indeed, there is surprisingly little discussion or literature on ethics in a field where so many have such tremendous opportunities and temptations to misuse the enormous amount of confidential information under their control or to manipulate official records and electronic funds.

Thus far, there has been little or no governmental regulation of the industry, and although in some states you may have to be licensed by a state agency to call yourself an "engineer," there are no such requirements in most places for the vast majority of IT positions.

Even the testing and certification that is so popular in the industry is purely optional. There is no requirement - other than perhaps a company's policy - that a person have an MCSE to work as a Microsoft network administrator, or a CCNA to manage the enterprise's Cisco routers.

Perhaps one of the most significant differences between IT and traditional professions is not even on the list, and that's the absence of any clear-cut "job description" that defines what an IT "professional" is and does. Physicians may work in research environments or they may be clinicians; they may operate their own private general practices or work as specialists for large health maintenance organizations - but it is still fairly easy to define what doctors do, and a standardized form of initial training is applicable to all. The IT business is more diversified. The basic skills required of a programmer are quite different from those needed to be a good network administrator, and while physicians generally work in some aspect of human health care, different IT workers deal with entirely different "species" - different hardware platforms, different operating systems, different programming languages that work in tremendously different ways.

On closer inspection, it appears that high salaries may be the only aspect of our jobs that would qualify us as members of a profession under the traditional definition. But is that a bad thing, or a good thing?

This article was originally published on Sep 30, 2000

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