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.
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
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.
What makes a job a profession?
Traditionally, the "learned professions" have shared several
Self-policing associations that set
standards, define entrance criteria, and discipline members who violate
Requirements for both higher
education and occupation-specific training
Standardized testing to measure
Requirements for on-going education
A code of ethics that governs
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?
Are network administration and computer
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
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?
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
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
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.
"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
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."
This article was originally published on Saturday Sep 30th 2000