BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, is a professional body that promotes high professional standards within the IT industry and aims to make IT good for society. In this interview, BCS president John Higgins explains the benefits of belonging to a professional body and the impact it can have on individuals and organizations alike.
Please describe the story behind BCS: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?
We’re one of the older membership organizations in IT, established over fifty years ago when tech was in its infancy. We have 60,000 members signed up in the UK and around the world, covering an incredibly wide range of occupations, from software developers and systems engineers to Chief Information Officers and senior industry leaders.
Some of our members are just starting out their careers – they could be students for instance – while others are established experts in their field, including in academia. You could say these are the people who use digital technologies to provide technical solutions within organizations and across society.
Just to give you a little example, my predecessor, Rebecca George OBE recently interviewed two past presidents, Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE, FRS, FREng, and Dame Stephanie Shirley CH. Both achieved great things; the first as a research scientist, the second as an entrepreneur and philanthropist.
We address a central issue. Trust in our technologies and trust in our sector can sometimes be an issue. The answer is professionalism, and we can provide that through our qualifications and by encouraging our members to gain chartered status.
We, as practitioners, need to demonstrate to the public at large as well as policymakers and regulators that they can trust us to work within an ethical framework. We won’t always get it right, but we’ll be trying our best and will take the implications of what we’re doing into account.
If you, as an individual, want to demonstrate this to your employer, colleagues, or even followers on Twitter, there’s no better way of doing it than belonging to a professional body and getting the accreditation to say that you are competent and work to a high standard. You demonstrate that you have ethical values and that you’ve learned them from the best in the business.
We see how these things work in other professions like law and medicine. We know that if people are professional, they do a better job for us. We don’t ask our doctors to be professional just because we like the idea, but because we want to have confidence in them and trust them. People need the same thing in our sector too, and that’s what BCS is all about.
What are the benefits of joining your organization?
First, you get access to a body of knowledge that can help you improve your skills. We offer lots of qualifications, and you can belong to specialist groups where you can share knowledge. The aim is to progress and formally improve your competencies and skills.
You get the benefit of informal opportunities that come through networking with more experienced people. Members get to talk to and learn about what CIOs do in their day job. Most people don’t get that kind of opportunity even in their own organization.
You get that badge that says you’re ethical and professional. If you’re a young person at the beginning of your career, you might think that professionalism doesn’t matter or that you just need to know your technology inside-out and be super sharp. That’s where I think employers and governments, as well as wider society, need to play a stronger role. They need to be telling people that these things are important. They need to specify their ethical standards and emphasize this when they hire people.
A very recent example of this is the proposed European Union regulation on Artificial Intelligence. It spells out the requirements for individuals developing algorithms used in high-risk situations to be highly skilled and accountable. That’s one important way in which policymakers can signal the importance of professionalism. It’s in all our interests to have professionals in the digital world, just as we have professional doctors in the medical world.
How do you keep up with all the rapid developments in IT?
We have several thousand leading academics and CTOs on board. Specifically, we have our Fellows Technical Advisory Group, where people who are operating at the CTO level share their knowledge on the applications of these with emerging technologies. So, you get that insider view on technology that you will not find anywhere else.
That’s just one example of how you can harness the power of the membership with no vested interest. This is not one supplier pushing one particular technology. These are practitioners sharing their invaluable knowledge and practice.
How has the COVID pandemic impacted your organization?
The pandemic has clearly put technology in the spotlight. Everyone is well aware of how much they rely on technology to live their lives and do their work. It really accelerated the take-up of technology and we’ve seen massive growth in the reliance on technology.
That said, in the early days of the pandemic, even people in our profession were uncertain about their futures. That made us work harder to demonstrate the value of belonging to a professional body. I’m glad to say we managed it and the institution is in very good shape at this point. Technology has probably been one of the least affected industries and has actually benefitted more than any other sector.
Which trends or technologies do you find to be particularly interesting these days?
I think we’re only beginning to scratch the surface with machine learning and artificial intelligence. Machine learning and AI are being applied in many more ways than people realize, and are embedded into so many applications and technologies now.
That’s one technology that people have to be aware of and I think the European regulation on AI will be another factor that raises its prevalence.
Cloud services will continue to grow. Not many organizations will be happy to rely on a server in the basement anymore.
I think there will continue to be a growing focus on cyber technologies that enable us to strengthen our defenses. We see big efforts in the UK to develop a real profession in cyber with the launch of the UK Cyber Council, which BCS is at the heart of. Cyber technology and information security are going to become increasingly important.
As the interest in digital currency grows, I think it will become part of the way we live our lives. I don’t mean it from a speculative perspective, but it will just become an underlying application of technology.
What are some of the values that BCS aspires to promote?
Digital practitioners need to demonstrate concern for societal issues. At BCS, we focus particularly on three societal concerns: The environment, digital literacy, and social diversity.
Firstly, the impact of digital on our sustainability and the environment, both demonstrating what we’re doing to reduce our carbon footprint and the environmental impacts of technology, but also to tell the stories of how digital technology is helping other sectors deal with their carbon footprint and their sustainability challenges.
We are committed to eradicating digital poverty. As we’ve seen in the UK and globally, one impact of the pandemic is the lack of access to digital technologies. Remote learning or working is great if you’ve got the tech and you know how to use it, but not so great if you’re one of those people who struggle because you don’t have a proper device, connectivity, or skill. In Britain, that amounts to about nine million people.
Like many sectors, we need to be building diverse workforces; it increases the talent pool, leads to better products and services – and it’s the right thing to do.