acm - an acm publication

The future of the IT profession
an interview with Peter Denning

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2000 | BY John Gehl 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

UBIQUITY: What do the recent denial-of-service attacks on the Internet tell us about Information Technology Professionals?

PETER DENNING: They had one positive consequence (which, of course, was unintended by the perpetrators) -- the attacks drew massive public attention to one of those little secrets that no one wants to talk about: we have become highly dependent on digital systems and on the professionals who design and manage them. Now everyone knows the truth: Our computer and communication systems themselves are easily disabled by anonymous vandals. Can we rely on professionals to help us ward off those attacks and keep things working? Who are these professionals? Who is educating them? Are they keeping up to date? Who certifies them? Are there enough of them? Are they trustworthy? Employers have always been concerned about our curricula, about the preparation and qualifications of our graduates, about the kinds of specialties available to them, about practical training to complement conceptual work, about methods of working together with universities and about the professionalism of our graduates. Now everyone is getting concerned about the same things, and more.

UBIQUITY: Since we'll be asking how that list of concerns is viewed by the information technology profession, we should start by asking: What is your notion of a "profession"? What does it mean to be a "professional"?

DENNING: I find it helpful to learn from other well-established professions like medicine or law. One of the most striking aspects of professions is their longevity and durability. This is no accident. Professions form around domains of permanent human concerns: things that concern everyone, in all times, places, and cultures. For example, no human being can escape health concerns. Sooner or later everyone has a health breakdown and seeks professional help. The health-care professional needs deep expertise to be helpful, expertise well beyond what an amateur can learn by reading or by word of mouth. The health-care professional must be well trained and oriented toward helping people. Similar statements can be made about law. No human being can escape concerns about laws where they live and work. There comes a time, sooner or later, when everyone seeks professional help with legal problems such as mortgages, deeds, wills, trusts, business deals, taxes, and much more.

UBIQUITY: Do those analogies apply to information technology?

DENNING: Absolutely. Ten or twenty years ago, many observers of computer science believed that computing was a branch of electrical engineering, mathematics, or management -- but not a field in its own right. No more. There is broad consensus that we are all utterly dependent on information technology and we need professional help. The domain of permanent human concern is nothing less than communication and coordination among human beings. Information technology has become a permanent part of the medium in which these human activities take place. We don't have to persuade anyone that we need plenty of well educated, well trained IT professionals. This presents the learned societies in the IT field with their greatest challenge ever: working together to organize themselves as a profession.

UBIQUITY: Well, which people get to be considered as information technology professionals?

DENNING: That's an important question. Our traditional view of computer scientists as programmers and systems analysts is far too narrow. Traditional computer science does not address the full range of concerns people have about information technology and is frequently criticized for various types of narrowness. Let me give you some examples. Few computer science departments offer specialties in information security, now a leading concern of users of information systems. Many software engineers now believe that traditional computer science programs are too narrow to accommodate the scientific and professional core of software engineering; they are moving to establish separate degree programs and departments. Many employers believe that computer science departments overemphasize theory; they rely on their corporate universities to close the gap by supplying practical training in IT. Did you know there are now over 1600 corporate universities? This number is much larger than the number of academic computer science departments! This number does not include the many hundreds of non-academic education organizations.

Computer science departments do not address the educational needs of all those help-desk technicians -- the people who answer telephone questions about software and personal computers. Although not trained as computer scientists, these technicians are taking care of other people's concerns about their computers and networks. They are, in my book, bona fide members of the IT profession. The same can be said of professional website designers.

Last year I did a quick survey to see what professional groups are already organized in various specialties of IT. I counted two dozen! I'm sure there are a dozen more. There's no way traditional computer science can prepare people for all these professional specialties. Computer science has become one of many IT specialties, with a kind of special status that comes to the parents of a large family. I've had to break out of an old mold of believing that only a degree-carrying computer scientist can be a full member of the IT profession.

UBIQUITY: Do you think that your view of this is widely shared? Or is it resisted?

DENNING: A few years ago it was resisted. Today, a growing number of people are coming around to it. Last year, the National Research Council released a report called "Fluency in Information Technology," which proposed that we think about what every citizen should know about computers as a kind of fluency rather than as a kind of literacy. This report struck a resonant chord with many educators, who now want to team up with computer scientists to define the conceptual framework in which their students must become fluent. The ACM and IEEE Computer Society have been working on a revision of the core curriculum in computing, which they are calling Curriculum 2001. In presenting initial proposals to other groups, they discovered that others want to see the computing core serve the many clients of computing that now exist. The narrow, specialized view is no longer the right philosophical basis. Professional computer scientists are responding positively to these changes by entering into the question of what is the core science of all IT? I think this is a happy development. Computer scientists are starting to ask, "who are our clients?" I think the "outreach attitude" that flows from this thinking will spread. It will allow us to rethink our relationships among our professional specialties. The old thinking led to animosities among insiders, such as computer scientists, software engineers, and computational scientists, and to animosities toward outsiders such as the digital librarians, the software architects, the webmasters, or the help-desk technicians. I believe that the new thinking is going to include all these groups. They are all part of the information technology field.

UBIQUITY: So there's been a kind of balkanization going on?

DENNING: Yes, you could say that. In the midst of animosities there is a natural tendency for each group to go its own way, to operate autonomously and try to avoid interactions that might be unpleasant or unproductive. I am optimistic that we will find a common ground under a single IT umbrella.

UBIQUITY: Are there bad consequences in a drift toward balkanization? Does it matter much?

DENNING: I think there are bad consequences and they do matter. Here's an example that will affect many software engineers in the next few years. The ACM and IEEE Computer Society are both deeply concerned about software engineering, but disagree on whether software engineering is mature enough to qualify as a profession. Consequently, they take different approaches. The IEEE Computer Society believes that software engineering ought to be a profession and must therefore act like one; since licensing is part of a profession, they are willing to help the states create good licensing exams for software engineers. ACM, on the other hand, believes that licensing engineers in the still-immature field of software would give a false impression that the licensed engineer is consistently capable of producing reliable, dependable systems. The body of knowledge behind software engineering hasn't developed enough to assure that a software engineering license would mean anything. How can we reconcile these views? How will we achieve any kind of consistency among state licensing requirements if the two leading professional societies cannot agree on whether licensing is meaningful?

UBIQUITY: Does this balkanization have any direct impact on the individual information technology professional?

DENNING: Sure. The software engineer in Texas, where licensing is being planned, will be faced with a conundrum. What would you do if you were that engineer? Prepare for the licensing exam, knowing that IEEE will stand behind it? Or shy away because ACM claims that people will come to believe that your license doesn't mean anything?

UBIQUITY: Does certification, as opposed to licensing, have some role in the debate?

DENNING: Let's distinguish between certification and licensing. Certification is a process whereby community representatives warrant that you have certain skills. Licensing is a permission granted by a state for you to practice your profession in that state. Many states may well make professional-society certification a requirement for licensing. I know that ACM and IEEE Computer Society both believe in profession-administered certification. I can easily imagine them cooperating on programs to certify software engineers even if they don't cooperate on helping states develop licensing exams. They don't even need to do the certification themselves. They could accredit university programs leading to certifications and they could help the ICCP (the Institute for Certification of Computer Professionals) develop a software engineering certification. If the professional societies don't cooperate on certification, the state licensing exams would become de facto certifications and there would be no consistency from one region to another. There could be 50 different understandings of certification in the US alone! If the societies cooperate, we'll wind up with one set of certification standards for everybody; the states who want licensing can all refer to it.

UBIQUITY: Certification is clearly an international concern and not just a concern of individual states in the US. Do both organizations cast a wide enough net?

DENNING: Oh, yes indeed. Both ACM and IEEE Computer Society operate internationally. Both are members of IFIP (the International Federation of Information Processing Societies). Something like 40% of ACM members are international (non-US). A few years ago, ACM restructured its Council to lessen US representation and increase international representation. ACM has established several international web mirror sites so that everyone can get good access to ACM's web services (

UBIQUITY: What do organizations like the ACM think about these famous kids who drop out of high school to become web jockeys or out of college to start companies? Does the organization help people like that?

DENNING: Both societies encourage young people to get bachelors degrees in IT disciplines. Neither ACM nor the IEEE, to my knowledge, has programs for people who drop out of school and enter the workforce early. Your question brings up another issue: lifelong learning. Over the years, ACM has developed much closer working relationships with academia than with the IT industry. This must change. ACM and the other societies willhave to develop a broad consensus on a model for professional lifelong learning that defines the roles of higher education, non-academic education organizations, and corporate universities. This will show young people the kinds of career paths they can define and where they can get the help to follow their paths. I am expecting this to happen as part of the IT Profession initiative.

UBIQUITY: You have discussed the role of education in the profession. What about innovation? Doesn't the IT business world have a different approach to innovation from the universities?

DENNING: There is an incredible amount of innovation occurring in the IT marketplace. Many of my university colleagues tell me that they learn more about novel technologies from the newspapers than from their research conferences. A lot of misunderstandings seem to arise because the universities and business world use the same word, research, for different models of innovation. The university believes that all innovations originate in ideas. Their research labs concentrate on producing ideas and spreading them around through scientific publication and conferences. Some of those ideas are taken up in the marketplace and eventually lead to innovations. Business and industry, however, believe that inventions are not innovations. Think of all the inventions that have been patented and never produced a penny for their inventors. Business and industry think that innovations occur in practice, in the way people do things. They look for new products that will enable new and innovative practices. They look for services to help people carry out new and innovative practices. They train people in new and innovative practices. Entrepreneurs are the agents who make much of this happen and venture capitalists are providing the money to help them get started. So we have two games going on. The research labs in universities and corporations traffic in ideas and obtain funds from the federal government or from corporate research budgets. The entrepreneurs traffic in products, services and new practices, and obtain funds from venture capitalists.

UBIQUITY: With those thoughts in mind, how would you change the approaches now used in higher education?

DENNING: I'd like to see two things happen: expansion of research lab portfolios and teaching of entrepreneurism. These two things are related because the kind of innovation that can be added to research labs is exactly the kind that entrepreneurs are good at. University labs could improve their abilities to innovate by adding to their portfolios R&D projects that help business and industry develop products. This would also help industry mobilize some of the brainpower in university labs to examine the deeper issues in the technologies underlying their products. I'd also like to see us learn to teach students how to be entrepreneurs. That would be real preparation for the workplace. The central skill of the entrepreneur is creating innovative practices and mobilizing people into them. It's not enough just to have a great idea. It takes work to convert an idea into practice, and the entrepreneur is the facilitator who does that. We do not teach this now. Business and industry are interested in helping universities learn to teach this.

UBIQUITY: Contrast what you're suggesting with what exists now.

DENNING: Our curricula are based on two related hypotheses about how people learn. One is that ideas precede action. Therefore, we need to give our students concepts and mental models of the world, along with a few opportunities to apply those models in action. The other is that the mission of the university is to prepare students for the long haul by focusing on fundamental, timeless principles. The problem I have with this is that these two hypotheses are incomplete. They miss a huge realm of knowledge I call "practices". Practices are all the routines, habits, skills, procedures, and processes you have embodied and exercise without thought. When you are judged to be a competent professional, it's your practices that are being assessed, not your conceptual knowledge. You may have noticed that many employers aren't too happy with the quality of our graduates. (They gobble our graduates up and complain all at the same time.) They wish that our graduates came not only with their heads full of ideas, but also with their bodies full of practices that fit into the professional IT workplace. Universities and industry need to work out some new understandings about how students will learn a better balance between conceptual knowledge and professional practices. This need not entail a reduction in hours spent on the core curriculum, but it might be accomplished through coop programs, internships, and work-study arrangements.

In my opinion, entrepreneurism does not show up on university radar because it is of a different world: universities are dedicated to transforming ideas and entrepreneurs are dedicated to transforming practices. Practices are serfs in the kingdom of ideas. Programs that focus on professional practices and development of high levels of professional competence are not central to the design of the curriculum. If I could start over, I'd design a curriculum in which embodied knowledge is an equal partner with conceptual knowledge, and in which innovation through transformation of practices has an equal place with innovation through ideas.

UBIQUITY: Let's end with a discussion of the IT Profession initiative. What is it?

DENNING: It is an initiative undertaken by ACM, with a grand view of ultimately establishing IT as a profession, and in the process transforming who ACM is and how it interacts with IT professionals and the general public. The ACM intends to help nurture our budding IT profession, overcome the tendencies toward balkanization, reach out to IT people who haven't been involved before, and offer more help for users of IT. This is going to take, over a period of time, new ACM initiatives, new ACM projects and services, new collaborations, new alliances, new ways of doing business -- all sorts of innovations. I chair a steering committee of professionals to help guide the initiative and suggest projects that we can carry out.

UBIQUITY: Are any projects already underway?

DENNING: Yes, two are underway and a third is being planned. One is the Ubiquity project, which is a hybrid between a well-edited magazine of opinion and a well-moderated forum. Many people will have a chance to speak out through Ubiquity and to influence ACM's directions by letting us know what really concerns them. Ubiquity plans to reach out to many new groups, involving them in the discussion of what it means to be a profession and to be professionals. Ubiquity is open to everyone, without charge.

The second project is the ICDL (the International Computer Drivers License). This is a certification of basic workplace skills in standard office computing systems including document preparation, spreadsheet, databases, and Internet. We will be operating the US branch of the highly popular program in Europe that certifies 45,000 people a month. It's interesting that the very first certification effort in which ACM is involved is not for IT professionals, but for other professionals who use IT in their work.

The third project, which we expect to start in fall 2000, is the ITP identity project. Its mission is to define the structure of the IT field, including its intellectual and professional core knowledge, its standards of competence, its institutions, and its professional groups. The steering committee for this project will be drawn from many sectors of the field and there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone involved in the field to influence the outcome. A few years ago, I led a group that produced the report "Computing as a Discipline," which did something similar for the field of computer science and engineering. That report was the basis of a major curriculum revision in 1991, undertaken jointly by ACM and the IEEE Computer Society. It also helped computational scientists and experimental computer scientists find their places in the field.

The steering committee is considering other projects including K-12 teacher education, IT professional education, IT professional certification, lifelong learning models, IT skill sets, and mobility of IT professionals.

UBIQUITY: If we were to have another talk like this five or so years from now, do you think the issues would be entirely different? Or would they be more of the same?

DENNING: That's a good question. If all goes well, five years from now many new things will be in place. We will agree on what our field is and how the many diverse specialties fit together. We will have a general agreement on a lifelong learning model for the IT professional, a model that recognizes the roles of academic, non-academic, and corporate training. We will have programs to help K-12 teachers learn IT. We will be offering extensive IT professional update programs and sponsoring certification of IT professionals. The ICDL program will be broader and will offer more levels of certification. Computer science will have learned to reach out and serve its many clients. IT schools will be teaching entrepreneurism and including market-based innovation processes in their research portfolios. The field will be much more attractive to more young people, including young women, and there will be few shortages of IT workers.

UBIQUITY: And how would you expect the professional organizations to have changed by then?

DENNING: I think that in five years' time we'll see many more joint projects between ACM, IEEE and the other professional groups. For example, I expect these inter-society efforts to yield significant advances in certification, especially for software engineers. The professional societies may resurrect the ICCP (Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals) as the main body that administers certifications. I expect significant advances in curricula through joint efforts. I expect significant advances in our technical knowledge in many areas, including ones that trouble us deeply today such as software system reliability and information security. And the individual societies will offer new programs for professional development, education, and help to the public.

UBIQUITY: As you look to the future, which developments do you think will turn out to be the most important for the profession?

DENNING: The recognition of embodied professional IT knowledge as an equal partner with conceptual IT knowledge. The acceptance of entrepreneurism as a process of innovation along with the production of ideas. The recognition of corporate universities and non-academic education providers as part of the lifelong learning system. The inclusion of service-oriented specialties in the IT profession. The combination of these accomplishments and a much more human appearance and identity for the profession will make IT careers more appealing to many young people, especially young women. That will be a very important, and very welcome, development.



— kidist bekele, Wed, 13 Jun 2012 08:00:37 UTC

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