Syllabus for Success

How to prove you're really an IT professional.

As children head back to classrooms, after what I hope were memorable vacations, I wonder if we as IT professionals are setting appropriately inspiring examples of the need for lifelong learning.

If someone asked you to prove that you were really an IT professional, would you be able to offer more than the title on your business card as evidence? What have you invested lately in staying abreast of the growing demands of your profession? How will that continued self-improvement translate, before the next summer recess, into doing things that you couldnt have done long before?

Before you offer indignant lists of the things youve learned in the past 12 months, please join me in thinking about the distinction between an IT pro and a salaried IT aficionado. Sure, there are many interesting things to learn, but let me suggest

that professionals give more attention to whats important than to whats cool.

Im talking about much more, therefore, than the demands of merely keeping up with IT vocabulary, of learning the C# language, for example, if thats something you feel you need to do, or of mastering the protocols and idioms of Web services—to which Id assign a much higher priority.

We could talk about these relatively simple challenges, and I could invoke a statistic I once heard that compared the number of books about programming that are purchased every year with the number of people in this country who are paid to write code. The average number of books bought per bit-basher was, at that time, considerably less than one; I have no reason to believe that this has changed, except to the extent that what used to be covered in manuals is now found only in documentation thats sold at extra cost.

Auto mechanics, it has been observed, invest more of their time and money than the average IT pro puts into maintaining professional competence, and it shows.

Whats more important, though, than the expanding vocabulary of IT are the new perspectives that need to be acquired, and the new roles that need to take shape, as IT continues to evolve from back-office support utility to head-table strategic tool. IT education typically begins, and too often continues, by teaching the design and operation of mechanisms; thats like doing driver education under the hood instead of behind the wheel. What separates the winners from the losers on the IT racetrack is more often their skill in picking a path than their competence in merely keeping the engine running.

Im talking about moving beyond the kind of IT education that begins with the all-or-nothing abstraction of 1s and 0s. Today, I suggest that an IT professional makes a much bigger contribution by being versed in the language of uncertainty, by being able to think and speak at a professional level about the modeling and analysis of both business and technical risk. The only risk-free IT projects are those that solve yesterdays problems with last years technology, which may be a useful classroom exercise for high-school students but doesnt add much value to an enterprises bottom line.

To do more, youll have to dare more—and make the case for doing so.

Meanwhile, if you look at your worst IT costs today in terms of expenses that produce no real return, I think youll find that they have little to do with mechanisms and much more to do with people. With the combination of ignorance and carelessness, for example, that gives worm attacks free rein.

Professional training in security practices and digital forensics may do much more to improve your IT return on investment than any number of seminars on tuning your servers.

Another force thats stretching the scope of an IT professionals duties is the increasing role of government rules in defining system performance requirements. What data is kept, in what form, for how long, and subject to retrieval upon what schedule are policies that must be defined—not merely shadows to be cast by our technical choices and our budget allocations.

Amateurs do whats interesting; professionals do whats crucial. Make your plans accordingly.

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Peter Coffees e-mail address is