Computing Professionalism: Forwards, Backwards, and Sideways – in Search of a Global Model

J. Barrie Thompson


1. Context and Background

As stated in the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice [1]:

“Because of their roles in developing software systems, software engineers have significant opportunities to do good or cause harm, to enable others to do good or cause harm, or to influence others to do good or cause harm. To ensure, as much as possible, that their efforts will be used for good, software engineers must commit themselves to making software engineering a beneficial and respected profession”

However, it is not just Software Engineers that need to act in a professional manner; it should be a requirement for all of those working within the computing sector. Despite the fact that there have been many significant developments in computing and much of business and government is now totally reliant on IT systems we still have a situation of too many software projects that fail to meet all their objectives, also there is the problem of the termination of many partially completed projects. In addition, there are fundamental questions concerning the ways in which computer based systems have impacted on society and individuals.

The problem of poor quality software systems has been repeatedly highlighted in published studies (e.g. Glass [2]). The cost of these failures is enormous, for example, it has been estimated [3] that in the UK, between 2000 and 2007, the total cost of abandoned Central Government computer projects had reached almost two billion pounds. A lack of professionalism has been identified as an underlying cause for many of these problems time and time again, for example in the 2004 report on The Challenges of Complex IT Projects [4]. Despite all this we still appear to be very far from having a sector that fully accepts that it must adopt a much more professional approach in all its activities.

Significant efforts to advance professionalism in the computing sector, and in particular in the field of Software Engineering, have been made since the mid 1990s [5]. However, in many cases what has occurred may be viewed as “three steps forward and two back” and “a step to the left and a step to the right”. Progress, to say the least has been spasmodic and it is difficult to judge when there will be significant international success with regard to having an agreed set of professional standards to which every member of the workforce ought to aspire.

The paper will use the conference theme of “backwards, forwards and sideways” to chart and appraise selected efforts in the field of IT professionalism. Within each appraisal a clear focus will be on what is needed (or what should have been done) to make each effective.

2. Forwards, Backwards and Sideways

To illustrate particular forwards and backwards elements along with successes and failures two projects, both initiated in the 1990’s will be considered:

  • The (initial) joint effort by the ACM and IEEE-Computer Society aimed to establish the appropriate set(s) of criteria and norms for professional practice in Software Engineering [5]
  • The effort by the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) directed towards defining an international approach with regard to professional standards throughout the whole of the Information Technology [6].

A further set of three illustrative examples, representing more recent efforts will be presented to demonstrate forwards and sideways elements along with views on what is needed for each to be effective. The efforts that will be considered are:

  • The IEEE-CS Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP) Program which is an international certification program for mid-level software engineers [7].
  • The Professionalism in IT (ProfIT) programme created by the British Computer Society which had a key objective to build an IT profession that is respected and valued by its stakeholders – government, business leaders, IT employers, IT users and customers [8].
  • The International Professional Practice Programme – I3P created by IFIP which it is claimed would support the development of a profession which is respected and valued for the contribution it makes to the exploitation and application of IT for the benefit of all [9].

3. Forwards or Simply Backwards and Sideways Again? Do we ever learn?

This year the British Computer Society is embarking on a major new initiative to transform itself into a global player in the field of professionalism. With a formal launch date of September 2009 the detail is yet to be made clear. However, it will be “BCS” that will be the brand (along the lines of HSBC?) with the logo “BCS the Chartered Institution for IT” and a significant emphasis will be placed on the value of the Chartered IT Professional designation [10].

The final paper will hopefully be able to provide more details and an analysis of this effort and relate it to those addressed earlier in the paper.

4. Evaluation

The final sections of the paper will provide an evaluation of the likely success of three of the selected initiatives that are currently ongoing:

  • IEEE-Computer Society’s CSPD
  • IFIP’s IP3
  • BCS CITP and internationalisation


[1] Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, 1999. Available at: [accessed April 2006].

[2] R. L. Glass, Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering, Pearson Education, Boston, 2003.

[3] B. Johnson And D Hencke, Not Fit For Purpose: £2bn Cost Of Government’s IT Blunders,Guardian, Saturday January 5, p11, 2008.

[4] Royal Academy of Engineering , The Challenges of Complex IT Projects, 2004, available from:

[5] Thompson J. B., Perspectives On Software Engineering Professionalism, in Wiley Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Engineering . Available at::

[6] I. Mitchell, P. Juliff, and J. Turner, Harmonization of Professional Standards, International Federation of Information Processing, 1998.

[7] IEEE-Computer Society, Developing Software Engineering as a Profession, CD The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc, 2002.

[8] BCS Professionalism in IT Programme, covered in a series of articles in the May 2006 issue of IT NOW, British Computer Society, Swindon, UK.

[9] Hughes C. (2007), International Professional Practice Programme – I3P, IFIP News, September 2007, P5, available from

[10] Update on the Future of BCS, issued with May 2009 issue of IT NOW, British Computer Society, Swindon, UK.