Certifications Are a Stop on the Road to Licensing

Editor's note: This column originally stated that "The Association for Computing Machinery supports the concept of licensing but has withdrawn from that effort." In fact, the ACM does not support software licensing at this time.

My column "Certifications Are No Longer Optional" generated emotional responses on both sides of the issue, split roughly 50-50. I agree that certs aren't worthwhile if you're well respected within your company, close to retirement or employed by a company that doesn't value certification. But if you might change jobs in the next few years (voluntarily or not), certifications will strengthen your résumé.

And certs' relevance goes beyond that. They are the first step toward licensing IT professionals.

Many disciplines have established licensing procedures. Anyone working in those fields who lacks a license is severely restricted in what he can do. For example, accountants can offer tax preparation and bookkeeping services, but only CPAs can audit and certify a company's books.

How real is the prospect of IT licensing? In Britain, a Chartered Information Technology Professional license is awarded to IT professionals who meet strict criteria set by the British Computer Society. In the U.S., the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying offers a licensing exam for computer engineers, focusing on hardware architecture, networks, system software and digital devices.

The NCEES is working with state professional engineering groups and the IEEE to develop an exam for software engineers. While the scope of the exam is still being determined, the first version, with a likely focus on specific process-control functions, could be offered in 2013.

A software engineering license would be a model for other areas of the industry, such as infrastructure, operating systems, business applications and project management.

Licensing would be a major step forward for IT for reasons such as these:

  • It would demonstrate a level of professionalism the industry has sought for many years.
  • It would be an indicator of specific skills. That could help hiring managers with résumé triage.
  • It would pave the way for common IT job titles and industrywide standards for job responsibilities and performance metrics.
  • It could establish global competency levels for IT, a boon in a time of global outsourcing.

Once licensing is available, certain jobs might require licensed IT professionals. For example, the FDA could require that software-based medical devices be coded and tested by licensed developers. Regulators could also require that only licensed developers work on products that must meet strict safety standards, such as air traffic control software and automotive systems.

Not All Rosy

There is a downside. Licensed professionals are personally liable for their work and can be found guilty of malpractice. And an emphasis on licensing might override concerns about a job candidate's cultural fit within an organization. But the advantages far outweigh the challenges.

IT licensing is the culmination of many groups' efforts to gain respect for the IT industry and establish professional standards. Obviously, licensing is no substitute for years of experience. But it's a good first step toward defining effective industry standards of professionalism. Of course, we could always go back to the time-honored designations of "techies," "geeks" and "nerds."

Is licensing starting to sound any better?

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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