There is a famous quote from Oscar winning screenwriter William Goldman which says that in Hollywood: “No one knows anything.” Goldman was referring to the fact that no one could predict with any accuracy which movie would be a hit and which would flop.
His quip could easily be applied to today’s IT industry. By most estimates large IT project success rates barely hit 50 per cent in total and only touch 30 per cent in the public sector. So at least half the time, no one knows anything, and the other half of the time any success may be just down to luck.
Dealing with these failings may be an uphill struggle, since many people think that IT is populated by the socially-challenged decked out in knitted jumpers, socks and sandals, elbow patches on shirts and with enough facial hair to cover Scotland.
But the BCS (formerly the British Computer Society) is a charity that is challenging these ingrained beliefs by creating a professional standard for the industry. It believes that even where professionalism does exist it is impossible to prove due to the absence of credentials. BCS chief executive David Clarke says: “The essential requirement for professional competence coupled with appropriate professional standards lies at the heart of almost all BCS activity and the services that it provides.”
Both sides of the story
Clarke himself has seen both sides of the fence. He’s been a vendor running marketing at Compaq before it was swallowed up by HP and knows what it is like on the user side having run Virgin’s web businesses.
All his experience has unfortunately taught him that emerging from a career with a good reputation means staying away from IT.
“IT never had a level of credibility,” he explains. “The IT beard and sandals brigade were almost disconnected. It would take a year to deliver something and by then the business has moved on. There is nothing there that is peculiarly British.
Percentage success rates for IT projects that are delivered to budget, on time and to a happy customer are comparable across the world.”
The BCS, which celebrated its half century this year, says it is doing a good job attracting young people both male and female. It now claims 60,000 members and says after a rebranding it attracted 1,000 new members per month and has good retention rates.
“There is an encouraging trend in the people we are attracting. The 18 to 35 age range is one of the biggest groups and one third are women. These are the people we need to use as role models who can demonstrate that careers in IT can be equated with success and career progression,” Clarke says.
But the next step is ensuring that those members and the IT industry in general ditches the baggage of a reputation for failed or late projects. “To be more professional everyday practice has to be best practice. A classic example is a quote from Peter Gershon, head of the Office of Government Commerce, who spoke at the relaunch of the BCS. The way he saw it, if you asked a chartered architect and a civil engineer to build a bridge - and they said it would fall down, it wouldn’t get built. It comes down to the fact that an architect wouldn’t build a bridge that is likely to collapse, a financial director wouldn’t sign off incorrect company accounts so how come IT professionals can deliver projects that don’t work or meet the requirement of the business?”
Action was needed, so BCS set up a steering board, made up of stakeholders, employers, supplier bodies and government departments, to lead the change to professionalism. The result was ProfIT, a professionalism in IT programme (www.profitalliance.org.uk). The programme has two key stated objectives: to improve the ability of business and society to exploit the potential of information technology effectively and consistently. To build an IT profession respected and valued for the contribution it makes to the exploitation and application of IT for the benefit of all – government, business leaders, IT employers, IT users and customers.
“Our profession has to grow up. The problem is that it is neither one thing nor the other, employers are not aware what is possible, or don’t have a feel at all for what is possible,” says Clarke. “Suppliers tend to deliver what they can, against the requirement. We need success stories, and are working hard on success stories.”
CIOs are crucial to this development, Clarke believes. “Investment decisions are made on business benefit and things that are getting in way of this must be addressed. The fundamental shift is that we can no longer rely on the supplier to understand the benefits and manage the delivery. CIOs need to be able to understand the healthy professionalism that is needed to deliver real benefit. It is no longer about getting the latest version of the OS, it is about investing in the technology for measurable returns,” says Clarke.
Delivering benefits is the mantra of every good business and none needs it more than the IT industry. Empowering the customer is the only way forward. And for the BCS the only way to empower the customer is to ensure they have the qualifications. For the BCS that means CITP (see box).
Only by being chartered can IT people hope to achieve a level of professional respect shown to their peers in other industries.
“It’s a momentum-gaining process,” says Clarke. “We are saying to the government that government-run projects should only employ qualified people. If you demand qualifications today there aren’t enough people so we need to start with the preferred option of working to a skills architecture. This means things like Skills for the Information Age (sfia). It is very detailed and the government has started to adopt it.”
On the supplier side
A recent announcement from IBM indicates that the problem does not just exist at a user level. In October IBM teamed up with The Institution of Engineering Technology (IET) to launch a professional development scheme to benchmark standards in the IT industry and promote the importance of professional registration to employers.
The new scheme will enable IBM employees around the world to fast-track to incorporated engineer registration through the IET.
Robin McGill, chief executive of the IET says: “The IET is very pleased to extend this important partnership to include IEng and promoting the importance of this professional qualification within the IT industry. The extension to IEng recognises the important role that incorporated engineers play in the provision, maintenance and support of vital IT systems upon which the world’s economy is based. IET is delighted to be working with IBM to help ensure that organisations are getting the right people with the right skills to manage and implement major projects.”
Box: The way forward: becoming chartered
According to the BCS the way to address IT’s ravaged reputation is by becoming chartered. Those gaining its CITP credential demonstrate both competence and a commitment to keep pace with advancing knowledge and the increasing expectations and requirements of the profession.
“What we did is set out to help ensure that people understand that for IT to work the key role in future is that of the CIO,” says BCS chief executive David Clarke. “If this is going to work it is about getting the right people with the right qualifications into the right roles, to deliver the correct application of IT into business. It is incredibly important.
Employers are seeking a real partnership between IT and the business and for that we need to add to the skills of the IT professional. We have a whole series of training capabilities at a technical level which also help to make people more rounded professionals,” says Clarke.
Technology, says Clarke, rarely fails. Projects might fail but that is usually due to some misunderstandings in the requirements. And the more complex the project the easier it is for misunderstanding to arise.
In the political satire Bullworth, a disillusioned politician on a campaign fund raiser in Hollywood, shocks the Beverley Hills’ elite by confronting them with the truth: “How come an industry that attracts all of these intelligent, talented people produces rubbish most of the time?”
Of course, what happens in la la land is not the concern of the CIO, but this is the question that should concern those responsible for making sure IT delivers. In IT terms it is no longer sustainable to fail and succeed in equal measure. It is time for CIOs to ask the question: “What qualifies you for this position?”