cloud question mark You didn’t always have to go to medical school and get a license from the state to practice medicine. The first licensing laws in the U.S. were passed in the 1800s but then repealed in most states, and many states had never passed licensure laws by 1850. Aspiring physicians could apprentice with practicing doctors until they were deemed ready (or deemed themselves ready) to hang out their shingles.  Attorneys got their training in much the same way. Today, of course, practicing medicine or law without a license is a serious criminal offense, and obtaining a license requires not just passing exams to demonstrate knowledge of the subject matter but meeting stringent educational prerequisites before even being allowed to take the tests.

One could argue that the IT profession today is where the medical and legal professions were two centuries ago. There’s no formal training, testing or governmental approval required to become an IT practitioner.  Some believe it’s time for that to change. They postulate that in a world where all networks are connected to one another through the global Internet, an incompetent network admin can be responsible for grave damage to companies, individuals and national infrastructures.

Does the current move toward the cloud provide an opportunity to rethink the qualifications for IT positions? What are the pros and cons of going to a “licensed professional” model?

Licensing isn’t reserved for just those “high end” professions mentioned above. From amusement ride inspectors to well diggers, plumbers to hairdressers, the state and/or professional organizations regulate occupations of all sorts at all levels of income. Some states license dog breeders, palm readers, boxers, egg handlers and other unlikely occupations. New York State licenses 126 occupations. The rationale is protection of the public and those individuals or companies who utilize the services, although of course there is almost always a monetary cost to the licensee, which may or may not cover or exceed the actual cost of administering the licensing program.

Licensees are usually required to complete a certain amount of continuing education in their fields in order to renew their licenses on a specified regular basis (which of course means additional on-going costs). A disadvantage (to the public) of licensing is that it can drive up the cost of the services performed by the licensed personnel, both by imposing costs on them that must be recouped and by creating an artificial shortage of qualified personnel. Of course, this is beneficial to those who are licensed professionals.

Some argue that licensing requirements stifle competition by imposing extra cost and sometimes irrelevant educational prerequisites on those who want to practice an occupation or profession, and that issuance is sometimes based on subjective criteria, which can allow those within the profession to exclude others they deem “undesirable” for reasons that have nothing to do with job abilities. In addition, licensing boards are usually made up of political appointees who may have their own agendas.

The closest thing to licensing that the IT industry has had, for a long time, is certification. There are hundreds of different IT certs available. Software vendors operate programs to train and test IT pros in the use of their products and issue certifications such as the MCSE (Microsoft), IBM DBA (IBM) or CCIE (Cisco) in recognition of demonstration of competency according to their standards. Vendor-independent organizations such as CompTIA and SANS also provide testing and certification in network administration and security that are not tied to particular product lines.

The big difference between licensing and certification is that the latter isn’t mandatory in order to get a job in the profession, although certified professionals may command higher pay and find it easier to get a job. Companies can set hiring policies that require certification, but they’re free to hire uncertified IT pros if they want. Generally, performing the duties of a licensed professional without a license can carry heavy penalties, such as fines or even imprisonment under the criminal laws, and/or civil lawsuits.

Those who favor the licensing model for IT pros point out that the complexity of computer networking approaches that of law and medicine, and that the ramifications of mistakes on the part of IT professionals can have similar negative impact. Those who are not in favor of licensing argue that the standards for legal and medical professionals, as well as those for most other licensed occupations, are much more established and grew out of centuries of evolution of those occupations.

Computer networking has only been around since the 1950s and widespread Internet connectivity for businesses and individuals didn’t come about until the 1990s, less than half a century ago. Thus those standards are much less absolute. Creating licensing exams that truly measure a candidate’s ability to do the job would be a challenge. Certification exams tend to be very specific, focusing on a particular vendor’s product(s) or on a specialty area (such as security) or be overly broad and high level to the point where the cert doesn’t guarantee any real in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. There is also the issue that some people who can do a job well don’t perform well on written exams, and hands-on exams (such as the CCIE) are very time-consuming and expensive to administer.

For the IT pros themselves, there would be both benefits and drawbacks to a licensing mandate. Those who made the cut might enjoy increased compensation and greater status – but entering the profession would be considerably more difficult. Am I in favor of licensing IT pros? No. Do I believe it’s inevitable, sooner or later? Probably.

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