IT Pro

Building a computer society for the future

The ACS is in for the long haul and despite its critics, replies Dr Nick Tate.

Recent online discussion around the role of the Australian Computer Society (ACS) raises key questions about the importance of professional associations to represent their members and support them throughout their professional careers.

So what does a professional association like ACS look like today? What should it look like? And, in representing Australian ICT professionals, should it also take a broader view in support of the wider community and the public interest?

There has been a seismic shift in the information technology landscape in the past decade – with no industry or individual spared the impact of the explosion of digital technology. This has created an unparalleled set of challenges for business leaders and governments. It has also generated previously unimaginable opportunities for technology experts and entrepreneurs with a technology focus.

But this isn't entirely new, our industry has been characterised, from the beginning, by its dynamism and by the innovation and accelerated change that have been the hallmark of the ICT industry since long before the introduction of the world wide web. The pace of change continues to increase, yet the dynamic nature of our industry has remained a constant. Just as the nature of an ICT professional has continuously evolved during this time, so too has the ACS.

The Australian Computer Society was formed in 1966 as an open, independent and “not for profit” organisation that exists to support its members and the ICT profession more generally, and to act in the national and public interest. At its heart are thousands of volunteer members who, over the years, have worked tirelessly to support the profession and give something back to the industry and society that got them started in their career. First and foremost, we exist to support ICT professionals in Australia.

Perhaps this is why I find it difficult to take at face value the comments of the chief executive of a company whose main purposes appears to be to offshore Australian ICT projects, or of a software engineer who appears to believe that we live in a country where the government forcibly disbands voluntary societies.

What does the ACS look like today? Significantly less old or old fashioned than some of these pundits would have you believe. For a start, our 22,000 members have an average age of 36, half our members are under 40 and we have nearly 2000 young members between 16 and 25 years of age. These members come from a wide range of ICT backgrounds, representing the diverse pathways that make up our industry. Over the years, we have continued to grow and, despite our challenges, have continued to meet the needs of many companies and individuals.

We have been criticised for the fact our past presidents and other volunteers in leadership roles have included lawyers. This superficial assessment has apparently conveniently forgotten that they also had degrees in IT and at least one of them had also been a CIO for many years. Indeed this criticism seems particularly odd, given the increasing diversity of our industry and the path many entrepreneurs in particular are taking to the technology sector. Unless of course, as one of the pundits suggests, we should consider software engineering to be the only discipline in ICT. As the industry evolves, the need to understand both business and ICT becomes ever greater.

I myself have spent nearly 40 years in ICT and software engineering as well as having a doctorate in IT security. I have worked with government; in universities and spent 20 years working with the investment banking community where I was head of IT for two London-based banks. Two of the current ACS vice-presidents have doctorates in IT and mathematics, as well as having vast experience. Our advisory committees and working groups of highly qualified and senior professionals include CIOs and CTOs in government, ASX200, research and academia. These are hardly the qualifications or experience of individuals who are out of touch with their own industry.

We are proud of the diversity of the ACS – it represents the huge range of talent in the ICT sector in Australia and underscores the fact that professionalism can take many forms.

A recent speech by our ACS CEO Alan Patterson outlines our vision of the future and our role within it. This speech was delivered at the ACS Young IT Conference, which is the only conference of its type to focus solely on engaging young professionals in the ICT sector. This speech clearly recognises the need to engage with future professionals and leaders of industry and was a statement of ACS's commitment to work with them.

We've also been criticised for our role in skills assessment. Unfortunately, once again, those levelling this criticism have taken a superficial view.

Skilled migration is not about certifying Australian university courses. It is about assessing the suitability of applicants to specific occupations in order to supplement the Australian workforce with skills in areas where there is a domestic shortage and ensure continued economic growth; thereby enabling the country to best position itself for continued prosperity and compete internationally as a knowledge nation. This is a role that the ACS performs in Australia's national interest and for the public good, along with 36 other assessing authorities such as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Australian Dental Association, CPA Australia and the Medical Board of Australia.

An applicant for any skilled migration visa must nominate an occupation which is on Australia's Skilled Occupation List (SOL) at the time they apply. The SOL is developed and maintained independently by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (not the ACS) and is aimed at securing sufficient numbers of skilled migrants for Australia without distorting domestic labour markets.

Fees charged by all assessing authorities are publicly available on their websites and you will find that the ACS is more than competitive.

The work of our assessors and support staff delivers a rigorous assessment framework that accurately identifies the ICT skills of applicants, and we are proud of the contribution we make towards building a prosperous future for Australia.

This question of professionalism goes to the heart of what the ACS is about. Do we as an ICT industry need to have professional standards and ethics? And who should be the guardians of these standards? In short, what should the professional body for ICT in Australia look like?

I believe that it should be a not-for-profit, independent, open society. A society that any ICT professional is free to join, to attend any of 600 public events every year, to undertake professional development, to seek certification as a professional, to participate, to start their own special interest group and to give back to the profession. In short: the ACS.

The ACS continues to evolve, as seen by our recent rebranding effort which included a revised and refreshed offering to students and a free online competency assessment tool to plan for career success. And there is much more planned. We champion a range of different topics: from gender equality in the industry to technical issues to making a case for better ICT education in our school, as well as promoting ICT in universities and TAFEs and careers based on a skilled workforce. Most importantly we represent a voice unbiased by a commercial or political agenda, for the ICT industry in Australia.

We are in this for the long haul and despite our critics, we will continue to support Australian ICT professionals by working with individuals, government and industry to create the opportunities for them to be recognised and succeed.

Dr Nick Tate is president of the Australian Computer Society (ACS).

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