Australian Computer Society

The future of the Information Technology Profession

Tom Worthington, President of the Australian Computer Society

Talk to the ACS Canberra Branch - 7.30 pm 21 February 1996

Manning Clark Theatre 6, Manning Clark Centre, Australian National University

Draft of: 21 February 1996


Tom Worthington Tom Worthington, President of the ACS, argues the case for professionalism and professional bodies, such as the ACS, in information technology. He argues that while popular PC magazines and hobby groups may have a higher membership and are more interesting to the general public, they are no substitute for professional bodies. Tom outlines the purpose of a professional body and its obligations to the wider community.


First I would like to thank the Chairman and executive committee of the Canberra Branch for the opportunity to talk to you today. This is my second talk to a branch since becoming President and its my own branch, so be gentle with me. ;-)

In my new year's address to members on the Internet I talked about the objects of the ACS. The ACS aims to further information technology and the competence of IT professionals in its use. The question I posed then was how can we best achieve these in 1996?:

Where does the real world of computing lie?

Eric Weiss in "Candidates for Change?" (IEEE Computer magazine November 1995) writes that the position statements of candidates for IEEE Computer Society president always talk about:

"...more and better publications, more and better volunteers, more and better programs, more and better students, more and better public appreciation, more and better international recognition..."

He compares this orthodoxy, with what the editors of Byte magazine have considered important over its 20 year history. He suggests that Byte sees the newest, trendiest and most popular with readers as being most important.

Weiss concludes that the IEEE CS's publishing program is misdirected towards the opinions of the authors, rather than the readers. He argues as a result Byte's subscriptions are growing much faster, with many new young readers compared to the IEEE Computer Society's, membership.

Professional bodies are not hobby groups

While Weiss's argument is directed at the IEEE Computer Society, the same case could be made against the Australian Computer Society, or any IT professional body (or even any professional body).

My position statement for the ACS Presidential election reads much as Weiss describes for the IEEE election. There are occasional (frequent?) criticisms of the ACS publications for being too "academic" and dull, in comparison to the popular IT press. The climbing membership of PC users groups is contrasted with the moderate growth of the ACS.

My reply is that being professional doesn't make you popular.

What is a professional?

Putting it bluntly, a professional is someone who does something for money. A hobbyists does something for the pure enjoyment of the activity. A professional has to produce a result, to the accepted standard: on time, on budget. A hobbyists doesn't have to produce anything. A professional has to demonstrate they have the knowledge needed to undertake work in the discipline and meet the codes of conduct set down by their peers.

By their nature professional bodies are a bit unadventurous, conservative and dull. Just as individual professionals are expected to produce a consistent result, so are the bodies they belong to.

Hobby groups and popular IT magazines can peruse the latest tends. Professional societies and their members have longer term aims and obligations.

Anyone can be an IT hobbyists and purchase a computer magazine. Not everyone will meet the standards set for an IT professional or is willing to commit to the obligations of a professional. So the ACS and other professionals societies are not going to grow at the same rate as hobby groups or magazine subscriptions.

Must professionals be dull?

The need for professionalism doesn't oblige the ACS do be stagnant, dull or dusty; and it isn't. Reading Byte and being an IT professional aren't mutually exclusive, as Weiss would appear to imply.

My professional career started with Byte magazine, at the birth of the personal computer. I bought one of the first editions of Byte and was captivated by this new sort of computing, so different to the mini and mainframe computers I had used at university.

Through Byte I learnt of a new computer store starting in Brisbane, called "Computerland". As a Computerland "groupie", I saw my first Apple II and taught myself BASIC. By the time the Apple II's first floppy disk arrived I was showing the Computerland staff how to use it.

Byte and I grew up together. The magazine has given insights into what are the latest trends in IT. However this didn't make me a professional, the ACS did that.

Byte showed me lots of new ideas and technology. The ACS showed me that you can't just implement the latest, it has to work reliably, even if the technology you use is a bit dull.

As an example look at the latest trend, which the young people of today and the IT professionals of tomorrow and experimenting with: the Internet.

The Internet for professionals

The latest hottest part of IT is the Internet. Everyone from the alternative press, rock musicians to the Prime Minister and the Pope are into the Internet now. Anyone can start using the Internet a low cost without sophisticated computer skills. So why would we need IT professionals?

The Internet only recently entered the popular imagination, but is the product of a decade of work. Some of this work was by gifted hobbyists, working alone, but much was by and built on the efforts of the IT professionals of the world, working using dull, old professional techniques.

If the Internet is to be more than a passing fad and a toy for a few rich kids, it must be made reliable, standardised and socially acceptable; that is: dull. This is a job for the IT professionals.

I recently asked a non-IT acquaintance, who is new to the Internet, what they most wanted from the system. They replied: "as long as the bloody thing works". There are many technical challenges to keep IT professionals buys doing this. Sometimes it gives a sense of satisfaction and sometimes frustration, to see how our clients take the products of much long effort for granted, because "the bloody thing just works".

Making the Internet "just work"

A year ago the ACS Canberra Branch set up an Internet service for members. This became the pilot for a national service. This exposed thousands of IT professionals in a pratical way, to a technology and a way of communicating they had only studied as a theory. Since then they have applied what they learnt in the workplace and in creating social policy for the use of the Internet in Australia.

In its use of the Internet the ACS has been more radical and advanced than other national IT societies around the world. However it is still more conservative than the hobbyists and popular computer magazines. Our members expect the ACS to provide services which work reliably, with documentation and support, just as their clients expect from them.

The future of the IT profession?

The IT profession will grow at a much slower rate than the general use of IT in the community. Our society can't afford, nor are there sufficient people with the aptitude, to provide a massive increase in the profession.

New sub-disciplines will continue to be created and will vie for the status of separate professions. There will be continuing blurring of boundaries with other existing professions, particularly those in the "information business" with resulting tensions.

The argument between telecommunications professionals (largely from the engineering disciplines) and computer professionals will be settled, with each group realising there is a place for the other.

The new area for tension will be in the "information" professions, created by the success of the Internet. Librarians, records managers, archivists and journalists will be thrust together with IT professionals on the InfoBahn. Many fruitless arguments can be avoided by realising that all information professions have something to contribute to the new on-line environment.

For about 18 months I chaired the Electronic Document Management Subcommittee of the Commonwealth Government's Information Exchange Steering committee. We had librarians, records managers, archivists and IT people. We all talked different languages and had different approaches to the same issues.

To prepare for this new world I have taken a few short courses over the last few years, in video production, graphic design and marketing. I hope my colleagues will realise that computing and telecommunications aren't all their is to the business of information and look further afield.

Old techniques will be dusted off and be used in new guises: large on-line systems need traditional database techniques and new computer programming languages, such as Hot Java, still need the principles of good program design and implementation.

Professionalism will not go out of fashion. People still want products and services which work reliably, as much as they want ones which are new and trendy. Clients and employers want IT people who are competent, ethical and responsible, as much as they want occasional geniuses.

The future of the IT profession is you. As members you can shape the way the profession and the discipline develops. As well, you can shape the future of our community. A hobbyist could shape whatever future amused them, but as professionals you are obliged to make a future which best serves the community. You must write every line of code, design every system, make every recommendation, propose every standard as if the future of depended on it, because that is what a professional does.

Australia: The Networked Nation

This talk follows one to the AGM of the North Queensland Chapter of the ACS in Townsville, 6 February. There I wanted to discuss what future is possible for Australia through information technology and the role of the ACS in that digital future.

Invitation to IFIP'96

In September 1996 we are hosting IFIP'96 - 14th World Computer Congress in Canberra. It's just down the road from my office at the Department of Defence. Please join in. If you can't come to Canberra, there are pre-conference workshops in Sydney and Melbourne, and you can join me in the on-line activities.

Tom Worthington MACS

G.P.O. Box 446, Canberra A.C.T. 2601, Australia
Telephone: (06) 247 4830, Fax: (06) 249 6419, E-mail:


See also:

About the ACS

The Australian Computer Society is the professional association in Australia for those in the computing and information technology fields. It was established in 1966. The Society has over 15,000 members and on a per capita basis is one of the largest computer societies in the world.

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