Who needs standards?
by Adrian Schofield
Brenda Scholtz’s cry for more professionalism and stricter standards among the practitioners in the software/information systems field is one that resonates around the world.
What is it about the IT industry, that it perpetuates the gulf between the desirable, accountable, professional development of systems and the casual, cowboy approach that results in wasted time and money (or worse)? It is estimated that more than 80% of the traffic on the Internet is spam or malware – is this the clearest symptom of our global lack of discipline in information systems development?
We are all familiar with the sequence of jokes that started in 1997 with this story: There’s word in business circles that the computer industry likes to measure itself against the Big Three auto-makers. The comparison goes this way: If automotive technology had kept pace with Silicon Valley, motorists could buy a V-32 engine that goes 10,000 m.p.h. or a 30-pound car that gets 1,000 miles to the gallon — either one at a sticker price of less than $ 50. Detroit’s response: “OK. But who would want a car that crashes twice a day?”
Underlying that “humour” came the growing realisation that the builders of “new generation” computer systems were not applying the rigorous standards that typified the approach to enterprise software running on mainframes and their smaller brethren. The age of the PC ushered in the ability for anyone to teach themselves how to write programs, to connect to the network and to market their “skills”. The buyers, in their eagerness to ride the wave of this new freedom of access to technology, seemed to be more than willing to accept errors and unreliability as the norm. The simple standards that applied to the purchase of tools for business (such as typewriters and calculators) were waived when it came to buying computers for the same purpose.
In the “good old days” (when slavery abounded and steam valves controlled Babbage engines), you had to have a degree AND membership of an approved “society” (IEEE-CS, ACM, CSSA, BCS) if you wanted to pursue a career in systems development. In the “good new days” and in spite of the dot.com bubble, many of the industry’s multi-millionaires never made it past school-leaving certificate. Add the ingredient of “freedom” into the mix (as in freedom to join a previously elite group of workers, as in freedom to use free, open source software) and it becomes difficult to convince decision-makers that standards are vital to successful acquisition of information systems. Never mind that those freedoms lead to the equivalent of allowing strangers to plant weeds in your flower beds or to steal your video records of family history.
Can the industry restore the balance? Quite a few initiatives around the world are attempting to do so. From the Software Engineering Institute in Pittsburgh, to the re-branded BCS Chartered Institute for IT in UK and to the Australian Computer Society, via the IEEE and the ACM – these and many other groups are upholding the value of proper learning and disciplined standards in keeping the practice of systems development as a true profession.
Are they winning? What more can and should they be doing?