My research touches on the professionalisation (or otherwise) of software engineering, and particularly the association (or not) of software engineers with a professional body, or with each other (or not) through a professional body. So what’s that about?
In Engagement Motivations in Professional Associations, Mark Hager uses a model that separates incentives to belong to a professional association into public incentives (i.e. those good for the profession as a whole, or for society as a whole) and private incentives (i.e. those good for an individual practitioner). Various people have tried to argue that people are only motivated by the private incentives (i.e. de Tocqueville’s “enlightened self-interest”).
Below, I give a quick survey of the incentives in this model, and informally how I see them enacted in computing. If there’s a summary, it’s that any idea of professionalism has been enclosed by the corporate actors.
Promoting greater appreciation of field among practitioners
My dude, software engineering has this in spades. Whether it’s a newsletter encouraging people to apply formal methods to their work, a strike force evangelising the latest programming language, or a consultant explaining that the reason their methodology is failing is that you don’t methodologise hard enough, it’s not incredibly clear that you can be in computering unless you’re telling everyone else what’s wrong with the way they computer. This is rarely done through formal associations though: while the SWEBOK does exist, I’d wager that the fraction of software engineers who refer to it in their work is 0 whatever floating point representation you’re using.
Ironically, the software craftsmanship movement suggests that a better way to promote good practice than professional associations is through medieval-style craft guilds, when professional associations are craft guilds that survived into the 20th century, with all the gatekeeping and back-scratching that entails.
Promoting public awareness of contributions in the field
If this happens, it seems to mostly be left to the marketing departments of large companies. The last I saw about augmented reality in the mainstream media was an advert for a product.
Influencing legislation and regulations that affect the field
Again, you’ll find a lot of this done in the policy departments of large companies. The large professional societies also get involved in lobbying work, but either explicitly walk back from discussions of regulation (ACM) or limit themselves to questions of research funding. Smaller organisations lobby on single-issue platforms (e.g. FSF Europe and the “public money, public code” campaign; the Documentation Foundation’s advocacy for open standards).
Maintaining a code of ethics for practice
It’s not like computering is devoid of ethics issues: artificial intelligence and the world of work; responsibility for loss of life, injury, or property damage caused by defective software; intellectual property and ownership; personal liberty, privacy, and data sovereignty; the list goes on. The professional societies, particularly those derived from or modelled on the engineering associations (ACM, IEEE, BCS), do have codes of ethics. Other smaller groups and individuals try to propose particular ethical codes, but there’s a network effect in play here. A code of ethics needs to be popular enough that clients of computerists and the public know about it and know to look out for it, with the far extreme being 100% coverage: either you have committed to the Hippocratic Oath, or you are not a practitioner of medicine.
Access to career information and employment opportunities
If you’re early-career, you want a job board to find someone who’s hiring early career roles. If you’re mid or senior career, you want a network where you can find out about opportunities and whether they’re worth pursuing. I don’t know if you’ve read the news lately, but staying employed in computering isn’t going great at the moment.
Opportunities to gain leadership experiences
How do you get that mid-career role? By showing that you can lead a project, team, or have some other influence. What early-career role gives you those opportunities? crickets Ad hoc networking based on open source seems to fill in for professional association here: rather than doing voluntary work contributing to Communications of the ACM, people are depositing npm modules onto the web.
Access to current information in the field
Rather than reading Communications of the ACM, we’re all looking for task-oriented information at the time we have a task to complete: the Q&A websites, technology-specific podcasts and video channels are filling in for any clearing house of professional advancement (to the point where even for-profit examples like publishing companies aren’t filling the gaps: what was the last attempt at an equivalent to Code Complete, 2nd Edition you can name?). This leads to a sort of balkanisation where anyone can quickly get up to speed on the technology they’re using, and generalising from that or building a holistic view is incredibly difficult. Certain blogs try to fill that gap, but again are individually published and not typically associated with any professional body.
Professional development or education programs
We have degree programs, and indeed those usually have accredited curricula (the ACM has traditionally been very active in that field, and the BCS in the UK). But many of the degrees are Computer Science rather than Software Engineering, and do they teach QA, or systems administration, or project management, or human-computer interaction? Are there vocational courses in those topics? Are they well-regarded: by potential students, by potential employers, by the public?
And then there are vendor certifications.