Thursday, November 15, 2012

"Professionalism" and "professionalism"

One of the things we worry about in university Computer Science departments is how to encourage our students to have a professional attitude to what they do. At Kent we're lucky in having some 70% of our students follow a one year sandwich placement between their second and final years, as well as offering them a chance to work as a consultant in the Kent IT Clinic in their final year. However, we'd like to start inculcating a professional attitude right from the start, and we're trying that this year in our "People and Computing" module which covers estimation, communication, group working and argumentation as well as more traditional topics. That's where the videos I was talking about in an earlier post came from too.

At the same time, I sit on the BCS Professionalism Board, which has oversight of the formal professional framework that the BCS supports, not only as a member organisation of the Engineering Council UK, but also in its own right with CITP (Chartered IT Professional) status. The BCS is looking at how it can engage young professionals, including recent graduates of degrees accredited by the organisation, as well as students at university. The aim here is to encourage these young people to become chartered members of the organisation, through CITP, CEng or CSci.

So, we have two agendas, which I'll characterise as "professionalism with a small 'p'" and "Professionalism with a capital 'P'". On the face of it the two look as though they're very different; the challenge is to make them work together. The "small p" challenge is to engage the intellect and interest of the students … something that Anthony Finkelstein has made a case for very clearly already … and this is something that academics should be able to do. But there's more that can be done here, and that's to put students in touch with people at other places in the pipeline.

My experience is that BCS branch members are happy to work with others interested in computing. A specific example from the Kent Branch is that branch members have been involved with mentoring school groups in a heat of the FIRST Lego League run at the University of Kent, as well as acting as judges. Surely we can build on this willingness to get involved to build links between local branch members and students by, for example, mentoring student project groups, or other activities.

What about the young professionals? I suspect that a similar approach would be the right thing here too. The BCS has strong … and very fruitful … links with corporate bodies, but not with SMEs. Paradoxically, the corporate sector is one where companies themselves are best able to support their young employees, whereas the SME sector cannot. So, is there an untapped opportunity in the BCS supporting young professionals in the SME sector, through mentoring, training and so on. In my experience, the managers of startups and other SMEs would be very appreciative of this … they don't have the resources to do it themselves, but by the same token have staff who would most benefit from this input.

To try to pull the arguments together, maybe a key approach is to encourage mentoring by young people of young people. For the mentors it develops a professional skill, for the mentees, it helped their development. And, with this in place, the professionals "with a small p" can be encouraged to become "Professionals with a capital P".


  1. A very interesting article that resonates with many of the discussion points in today's BCS Council meeting. As a computer science academic and Chair of the BCS Young Professionals Group, I think the student/young professional transition is especially problematic and we are currently looking at how best to address this. Mentorship is certainly one strand of this -- happy to have a chat!


    p.s. Anthony's article on professional is very good.

    1. Tom, thanks. It seems like this question is exercising a number of different bits of BCS, as well as some of us in academia. I wrote this partly as a starting point for discussions going on at a meeting of the Prof. Board next week. We should stay in touch about this …