June 10, 2010

BCS: British Computer Society or Boring Corporate Society?

I've been part of the British Computer Society for almost my entire career. I can't remember exactly when I joined - I think I toyed with the idea while still a student, but had been working for maybe a year or so before I finally got round to filling in the paperwork and sending off a cheque (which gives a clue as to how long ago it was :-)

For a long time I was just a Fellow of the BCS, because I hadn't bothered to find the two members to sponsor me and go for the interview which would be needed for me to become a Member of the BCS; it was one of those things-to-get-round-to that I've still not gotten round to. Then a few years ago they relaxed the rules to become a Member, so since then I've been MBCS but still not a Chartered Engineer (that used to come with MBCS status, but now is the extra you get for jumping through some additional hoops, and understandably so).

I think the main reason I've never bothered taking my membership any further is because I've never felt particularly engaged with the society, and over the years that's something that's only become worse.

There are three problems I think with the BCS: certification; domination by corporate IT; and an absence from the modern web.


This is the thorniest problem to solve, and I can't really offer any suggestions of what to do about it, just point out some of the issues in the hope that it will improve understanding of the area.

The theory is that people in IT need to have a professional certification to prove that they know what they're doing. On the face of it, it's a no-brainer: IT is becoming increasingly important and we need people who understand how it works and who will do a good job of implementing the systems we're putting in place. I'm consistently disappointed by the quality of work that I encounter as a user of IT, and the big government IT project failures are well documented in the press. There are lots of people selling websites or "social meda" expertise to businesses and making money off sub-standard implementations and snake-oil.

A certification body would give people confidence that they were getting a decent product or service and for safety-critical systems like those in aeroplanes one could argue it should be mandatory.

The problem is that exams and formal qualifications puts off a lot of the best people in IT. One of the good things about computing has been the lack of barriers to entry, as it's given us a wealth of people from other disciplines whose passion and interest in the subject mean that they care about what they're doing. There are lots of us with formal qualifications in computer science, etc. who also fall into that bracket, but it would be a great loss to exclude the almost-accidental coders and technologists.

What you really need is a way to certify the passionate, interested and capable, rather than those who have an inclination toward, or an aptitude for, formal qualifications. However, I don't know how you do that.

Corporate IT

I've been trying to work out exactly what I mean by this, or where the criticism comes from, but I can't quite put my finger on it. It might be to do with the Young Professionals Group networking event that I attended years ago, which was all suits and networking as career progression; or it might be the tendency for the BCS magazine IT Now to contain lots of dry articles about heavyweight project management techniques or outsourcing; but I think it's more pervasive than that.

At present the board in charge of the society are trying to implement a BCS transformation project, and a group of members have objected and called an EGM (extraordinary general meeting, as opposed to the usual AGM). I was quite optimistic when I first heard of the challenge, as I thought that maybe some of the problems were being challenged, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

There was a webinar about the EGM broadcast earlier (which, along with the discussion on twitter is what prompted this blog post) which seemed full of corporate waffle trying to deflect the issues and not really engaging with the questions being asked on twitter, despite those very questions being encouraged beforehand.

From the ensuing conversation on twitter (specifically comments like this from Andy Piper) I had a look round the EGM information on the website but found it all rather inpenetrable. It seems to be full of the corporate bland wording that sounds impressive but conveys little information. Either that or my tolerance for such language has dwindled since I left Microsoft. I suspect it's a combination of the two, but that sums up the sort of "this is big, important IT, performed by us important corporations" sort of vibe that feels very hostile from the "small, independent entrepreneur more interested in working with interesting stuff than having a fancy office" perspective.

"an IT profession fit to lead the information society"

The heading above is taken from the front page of the BCS website. I don't have any problem with that as one of the aims of the society, in fact I think that's a lot of what it should be doing. The society and its members should be at the forefront of computing, working out what works and what doesn't, and using our code of practice to inform debate about the direction that technology should take.

Only I don't believe the BCS is doing any leading and that's the biggest problem that the society faces.

The easiest way to see that is to look at what it's been doing on the web. The website looks very fancy but it's still missing the sort of touches that have been default practice for anyone "leading" the web for years. Things like URLs that are human-readable and hackable, ".../mcfilter/archives/computers/interplay_2010.html" rather than ".../server.php?show=nav.9312"; or machine-readable links to the RSS feeds on all pages.

For a long time they didn't have any way for members to network online, despite technologies like newsgroups predating the web, and when they did get some web forums a few years ago they were pretty useless. I only tried them once or twice, and IIRC I did provide some feedback on what might improve matters but was told that there was a new system coming along soon, and encouraged to wait for that.

And now that we've got a wealth of ways (and off-the-shelf packages) to meet and interact, the society has spent a load of money on a shiny new "members network" which is painful to use, looks like a poor Ning rip-off, and is still missing fundamental features like RSS feeds for the group discussion boards.

Normally I'd try to work out how I can get involved and improve matters - after all, complaining is easy; doing things is hard. However, this afternoon there have been ~600 comments from 88 people on twitter about the discussion and in the nine hours since the webinar started there have been a sum total of zero responses from the official BCS twitter account.

UPDATE: Tim has written another, much more eloquent take on some of these issues too.


Posted by Adrian at June 10, 2010 08:56 PM | TrackBack

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