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Communications of the ACM

Forum: Evolving Commitment to the Profession of Computer Science


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Peter Denning's new column "The Profession of IT" (Feb. 2001, p. 15) takes an important tack in the evolution of computer science, IT, and informatics.

As an educator, I emphasize to my students the need for developing professionalism. This has broad meaning, including membership and contribution to their professional society, a positive attitude about their educational processes and the courses in which they're enrolled, a need to diversify one's education to include breadth in the liberal arts and sciences, and sensitivity to the legal and social aspects of computing. These and other factors work together to meet Denning's four hallmarks.

One additional item Denning may wish to discuss in a future column is one of the older efforts to codify the profession, as those of us who founded the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB) drafted in 1986. The CSAB statement (see www.csab.org) is still used by CSAB for "defining the computing sciences professions."

This definition attempts to capture much of what Denning includes in his column; it also has some value partly because of its general nature. In my classes I make a point of sharing it with beginning CS students and use it in a variety of forums to kick off discussion of the profession and its future.

At the time the CSAB statement was drafted, the term "information technology" was not yet recognized as an umbrella term. Perhaps if it were, we would have used it in place of "the computing sciences." Indeed the CSAB activity to incorporate accreditation of IS programs in the near future fits better when IT is used as the more encompassing term.

Denning also mentions "informatics" as the European way of identifying "the discipline of computing." I believe some broader use of the term informatics is beginning to take place in the U.S. One example is the new School of Informatics at Indiana University (see informatics.indiana.edu/iub/index.htm) where informatics is defined as the study of IT and how it is used to solve human problems. Indiana University's School of Informatics "will educate students broadly in the technical, psychological, and social aspects of IT and will help them to apply this knowledge to their chosen cognate area."

At Potsdam College in New York, an interdisciplinary committee is studying the development of programs to meet these broader objectives, looking to a time when a major program with an IT core provides a broad liberal arts education in an informatics sense for our students. Thus, students with this leaning may combine interests in, say, art, music, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence to develop their own unique BA degree program.

Finally, one more idea: If we were able to look back from perhaps 2025 and in some way codify the revolution we're experiencing today, many might say, "It's a computer revolution," or "It's an information technology revolution." The answer I share with my students is, "It's a communications revolution." The broader we can suggest our students to think, the more likely they will be able to work with the changes taking place.

I hope Denning's column will be a seed to grow broad discussion among our colleagues about this marvelous field that continues to evolve and the ways we describe it.

John F. Dalphin
Potsdam, NY

While I think everyone would agree with Denning that software development is not a profession, many of us would ask whether it has matured to the point where it is ready to present itself as a profession.

All branches of knowledge change their basic assumptions on occasion and struggle with the transition to new assumptions, but the young computer field is particularly subject to such flux. For instance, most researchers agree that the strong typing of variables is critically important, but thousands of happy programmersamateurs and professionals alikeare creating value through scripting languages like Perl that permit abominable looseness. If I remember right, the ACM came out against the certification of software engineers about a year ago, suggesting that the ground for professionalism is firm enough. (I need help finding this reference; I couldn't find it flipping through old Communications or searching the ACM Digital Library.)

This raises a more general question (where the IT field should make use of Denning's reasoning) of what should be reserved to IT professionals versus where amateurs should be encouraged to play. While I wouldn't want an amateur producing software for an air traffic control terminal, with or without typed variables, I find it liberating for users to enhance their systems with all kinds of personalized software. Of course, each customization carried out without the rigor of formal design and testing introduces risk, but we have to recognize that the scope of computing has expanded greatly over the past 20 years. While some developments cry out for more standards and the organized transmission of these standards, other developments celebrate the innovations of undisciplined new entrants to the field.

Andy Oram
Cambridge, MA

Denning makes some interesting points in his February column. He also offers some working definitions of craft, trade, discipline, and profession. For example, he defines a trade, in part, by saying that society allows it to be practiced for the "benefit of society."

This phrase, seemingly so simple, seems to beg for a definition of its own. What exactly is meant by the "benefit of society?"

Louis A. Russ
East Brunswick, NJ

Peter Denning Responds:
Neville Holmes discusses useful distinctions in helping understand the level of commitment needed for the profession ("Fashioning a Foundation for the Computing Profession," IEEE Computer, July 2000, 9798).

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