On The Job: Are Networkers Technicians or Professionals?

Friday Sep 29th 2000 by ServerWatch Staff
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The term 'networking professional' is tossed around easily in the IT industry, but often even those in human resources, who write the job descriptions for the positions being referred to, don't have a clear concept of it means.

Deb Shinder

The term "networking professional" is tossed around easily in the IT industry, but often even those in human resources, who write the job descriptions for the positions being referred to, don't have a clear concept of it means.

Information technology is certainly one of the hottest occupations around these days, but most of us "in the biz" rarely (if ever) bother to ask ourselves whether or how our jobs fit into traditional professional models, whether computer programming, network administration and the like can - or should - actually be considered professions, and what such a classification might mean to us and to the industry itself.

MCSEs, CCNAs, CNEs and others who have earned one or more strings of letters to follow their names like to think of themselves as "certified professionals." On the other hand, many licensed engineers consider members of the certified crowd to be "mere technicians," and unworthy to call themselves systems "engineers." Indeed, in some states the professional engineering associations legally prohibit the use of the word in advertising by MCSEs and others who have not completed an engineering degree and obtained state licensing.

Who's right? Is networking really a profession? Are network administrators "professionals" in the true sense of the word, or just well-paid technicians? Are we even sure that the traditional professional model is one to which we want to aspire, or are there benefits in being "only" technicians? This article will examine those questions, and offer some opinions and suggestions regarding professionalism in the IT industry, and the ramifications for IT workers.

Deb Shinder

What makes a job a profession?

Traditionally, the "learned professions" have shared several characteristics:

  • Self-policing associations that set standards, define entrance criteria, and discipline members who violate their guidelines

  • Requirements for both higher education and occupation-specific training

  • Standardized testing to measure knowledge/skills

  • Requirements for on-going education and training

  • A code of ethics that governs professional behavior

  • Governmental regulation/licensing

  • Annual or periodic dues, membership fees and/or licensing fees

  • Relatively high compensation, based on annual or monthly salaries rather than hourly wages

Medicine, law, engineering, teaching, counseling etc. all meet this definition of "professionalism." Note that there are many occupations that meet some of these specifications - skilled tradespeople such as plumbers, electricians, barbers, and the like must undergo training, pass exams, and obtain licenses. Some may also join associations, abide by formal codes of ethics, and be well paid. However, these jobs don't usually require degrees, and most members of these trades are paid on an hourly basis.

Other fields, such as law enforcement, real estate, and stock brokering might be thought of as "quasi-professions" in that they don't strict meet every one of these standards but are working toward upgrading the professionalism of their occupation, primarily by raising educational and other entry requirements.

Where do high tech occupations fit into this model - if at all?

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?

Deb Shinder

Should IT workers strive to become "professionals?"

There are certainly benefits to being considered a member of a profession. More clearly defined roles, better guidelines on how the job should be done, and higher status are a few of them.

On the other hand, there are also drawbacks associated with the professional model. Increased civil liability is one - a "professional" is held to high standards, and it seems that in today's litigious society, members of the professions are high profile targets - professional liability insurance (such as the medical malpractice insurance physicians must maintain) is a huge expense that has become an absolute necessity.

Government regulation, another characteristic of most professions, is also a worrisome prospect in a business where freedom to innovate has been the driving force since its inception. Although mandatory licensing of IT professionals might raise the quality of work, and provide for a certain amount of job security for those who are licensed, do we really want the government to dictate who can or can't hang out a shingle and pursue the modern American (and world-wide) dream of making it big in the computer industry? Should a talented young networking whiz be required to obtain a computer science degree before he can practice his craft/trade/profession or whatever the heck IT is?

Will the "professionalization" of the IT industry hurt or help us as individuals? Will it truly benefit the industry itself? These are questions we need to ask, as IT work struggles out of its infancy into an uneasy adolescence. The answers are not easy or clear-cut.

It may be that the traditional professional model will never be a comfortable fit. As with so many other things, technology may re-define the professional model.

Deb Shinder

A new model

Perhaps the answer is for the IT world to get itself organized - but not too organized. To put in place mechanisms for standardizing testing and maintaining professional credentials, as companies such as Microsoft, Novell and Cisco have attempted to do with their certification programs. The multi-tiered Cisco program that offers a difficult-to-obtain, premium certification (CCIE), and the recent changes to the MCSE and MCT programs are, in my opinion, steps in the right direction. Government intervention and regulation (again in my opinion) are not.

I also believe it's time for the industry to address the many ethical issues that arise in the working life of an IT pro. We will never have the respect of other professionals unless we do so. Ethics and legal issues (which are not the same) should be part of network administration training curriculums just as they are part of the educational process for aspiring doctors, lawyers, police officers, etc. We work in a world where often nebulous laws govern transactions involving intangible intellectual "property," where legal jurisdiction is often unclear due to the global nature of the Internet, where the line between the world inside the computer screen and the "real" world is often blurred. 

New entrants into this complex field need guidance - not just in how to configure a router or calculate an IP subnet, but in how to navigate the turbulent waters where man and machine interact and the former's master of the latter confers a great deal of power - and responsibility.

Deb Shinder

"Profession" vs. "professional"

A common misconception is that only members of a profession can be "professional." In reality, the meanings of the two words are distinct. While the definitions we discussed above are generally recognized as distinguishing an occupation as a "profession," the adjective "professional" has a much broader meaning:

Having or showing great skill, performing a job in an efficient and effective

manner; behaving in a way that promotes one's reputation as a person
who delivers work of highest quality.

You needn't be a member of a profession to do a professional job. I believe that we, as IT workers, will benefit ourselves more by focusing on upgrading our performance to the professional level, than upgrading our occupation to the status of a "profession."

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