The eighth of July 1989 was quite a proud day for me. On that day I was handed a certificate to mark my participation in the national finals of the British Computer Society (BCS) Schools Computing Quiz. Our team had demonstrated a knowledge of technology (which is now probably in museums) that was almost on a par with the team that won. It was also the last time I remember having any contact with the BCS, despite the fact I work in IT full time and have done for quite a while. This is not due to any bad feeling, I remember everybody I met from the BCS as being very nice, it's just that somehow over the years the BCS faded into the background. Now I read that the BCS is “in crisis”.
In the early 2000s I did toy with the idea of joining the BCS, I was new to working in IT and thought it might help. I even got as far as talking to my boss about it too, he thought it was a nice idea, but I got the impression it did not hold much sway. I saw that quite a lot was involved in getting membership and not having a Computer Science degree (I have a Law degree) seemed to be a handicap. So I forgot about the idea, and in fact it has never come up since. Despite changing employers I've only rarely heard people talking about it. I sometimes wonder if I had done all of that work and proved myself to the BCS, would it have made any difference?
As I am not a member of the BCS and don't know anybody who is an active member, I can only comment as an outsider looking in. The starting point for doing this is to look at the “Why join?” page on their website. They have now started referring to themselves as “The Chartered Institute of IT” and claim to be “enabling the information society” all very charming, but not immediately obvious what that means. It then goes on to say that joining can “enhance your professionalism” and mentions a large sounding network of members, hard to fault, but quickly the text goes on to talking about qualifications and letters after your name.
I read a lot of material each day, links that people post on Twitter, material from Google Reader, occasionally press releases and so on. Here I have read an entire web page and not really found a compelling reason to join up and I am running out of reasons to spend any more time on this site. I'm not really bothered about extra getting letters at the end of my name, I'm double barrelled to that is pretentious enough and while I am sure that having “Chartered IT professional status” would be wonderful they haven't really sold it. After all, it isn't like we are short of the opportunities to do exams in IT, there are more certifications than you can shake a stick at, why not do one that demonstrates you are competent in a specific (marketable) skill instead?
Delve deeper into “Membership Services & Benefits” and maybe the problems start to become apparent with “Networking” shown as an opportunity. This is interesting as I find Twitter very useful for networking. It has enabled me to talk to people from all over the world and exchange ideas. I didn't have to pass an exam to join Twitter. Of course there is also LinkedIn too for the added professional feel. Perhaps this is the problem with the idea of professional associations? If the people you want to network with, the people you learn from and are inspired by, aren't behind an exam-wall it is natural to take the easiest route to speak to them.
In the absence of compelling evidence it is hard to justify the time in becoming involved with such an organisation. Perhaps this is not entirely the fault of the BCS, IT is after all a very young profession, still being formed and coping with an incredible rate of technological progress. We cope with new ideas and technologies regularly moving between jobs that didn't even exist only a few years ago. This is not like the legal profession or the medical profession both of which have existed for hundred of years and have defined themselves very clearly. Our profession is very different and will be for many years to cope and may even become harder to define. Perhaps the BCS should be applauded for trying to give IT a professional identity, but this should never mean that people outside the BCS are looked upon in a less favourable light or seen as necessarily less “professional”.
On 1st July 2010 the BCS will have an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss its future. I don't know enough about the viewpoints of those concerned to be able to comment on specifics, but I would urge BCS members to discuss, argue and debate ideas about how they should shape their future. They should think less about exams and maybe think about the contribution they can make to the world. Despite my criticisms I feel that the BCS can make a very positive contribution, getting young people interested in careers in IT is one area of urgent concern where they could help. Encouraging professional standards and conduct in an emerging industry is beneficial too. I genuinely wish the BCS well and hope it prospers, but I fear that their direction may lead to rejection. The BCS will probably never be the defining professional body of the IT industry, but that doesn't mean it can't play an important role. It just may have to stop thinking about status quite so much.