Learning curves

Taking a preemptive view to learning from associate professions can help techies understand the bigger picture.

Comparisons have  long been made between the skills involved in mainstream engineering and those demanded by the engineering of IT systems. Both are directed at the construction of projects for practical applications, and use technology and scientific principles to deliver practical applications.

Software projects are now described as being 'built' or 'architected' - rather than 'written' or 'designed'. The implication is that IT professionals could benefit from a close study of mainstream engineering.

The concept of computer engineering has been around for decades - indeed, accredited computer engineering degrees have existed since the early 1970s. The longer-established fields of study have a bias toward component design and, as such, a knowledge of related sciences is often regarded as essential to better understanding. More recent generations of technologists approach the study from the other way round: using well-honed computing skills as a way of getting to grips with subjects like mathematics and physics.

Traditionally, professional crossover between engineering and IT has been a relatively unusual career development, but the trend away from rigidly observed technical specialisms is opening opportunities for career paths in both disciplines to intersect. Different project teams used to work largely independently on their part of a given project, but the prevailing trend is for project teams to unify and develop skills across disciplines, so that projects evolve in a more unified way.

This means that the IT function liaises with the engineering function at every stage of project development, rather than only when the IT component is touched.

So software developers, for instance, will work with engineers both in terms of specifying the computer tools needed to design and plan engineering projects, as well as the IT systems that will be an integral part of those projects' functionality.

Seized opportunities

This working method means that team associates from a 'purely' engineering background are exposed to the dynamics and concerns of systems and applications software, and even of the underlying hardware - the physical networks of cabling and switches - that form the plumbing of all IT.

Professional bodes - such as the IET - recognise this requirement by creating opportunities for its members - traditionally electrical, electronic, and manufacturing and systems engineers - to add IT-oriented certification and qualifications to its professional development offerings. Aspirant IT professionals see value in adding engineering know-how and accreditation to their skill-sets. Between June 2007 and March 2008 the IET collaborated with the National Computing Centre on the Enterprise Architecture and Systems Engineering Programme, a series of workshops that focused on the key issues of best practice in these fast-evolving disciplines.

"When trying to explain what [engineers] actually do for a living, the best definition when dealing with non-engineers is to say that [we] are problem-solvers," says Jon Holt, managing director at consultancy and training firm Brass Bullet, and an EA-SE Workshop facilitator. "Everyone can associate with this and, indeed, problem-solving skills are explicitly mentioned a number of times in the school National Curriculum - although engineering isn't."

Previously disparate disciplines are finding that they have more in common than they had perhaps expected. The way in which software is 'engineered' at first sight invites many comparisons with the way physical functionality is engineered into a thermal power station, robotic factory, cable-stayed bridge, or ramjet engine. Creating software is a 'discipline' that has its own sets of rules and procedures that have been established over the last 60 years, and these have been influenced by the way engineering projects are planned, designed and executed.

At the same time, mainstream engineering has been profoundly affected by computerisation in areas like design, simulation, modelling, and project management. Computer-aided engineering applications, for example, enable engineers to better handle factors like stress analysis, process simulation, visualisation and virtualisation.

Terms of conditions

The term 'software engineering' has been around for 40 years - it first gained currency at the 1968 NATO Software Engineering Conference.

A common definition of software engineering is that it encompasses knowledge, tools, and methods for defining software requirements, and performing tasks like software design, software construction, software testing, and software maintenance. These are all tasks that engineers of any complexion will find familiar.

In the mainstream IT world, the software and hardware co-exist and are co-dependent. The term 'hardware engineer' tends to defer to the more widely recognised synonym 'computer engineers', and sometimes erroneously as 'hardware architects'. The former term describes IT professionals most involved with the design,implementation and testing of hardware (PCs, voice and data networks, circuits, components, switching systems, and so on).

Again, such terms are, at best, loose working definitions, because the heterogenous nature of today's IT systems means that few people working in these environments are able to resist acquiring multi-disciplinary skills: IT has become increasingly collaborative.

IT security is a prime example of this. Until relatively recently, many critical software applications were developed with minimal security provision built into their interfaces - basic username and password at best to secure access. When mainstream computer hacking emerged in the 1980s, software vendors realised that security needed to be upgraded; but this part of the process was for too long an afterthought to the main program functions; software was not built with security in mind 'from the code up'.

Secure at the start

The trend in recent years has been for 'e-security' specialists to be involved with new software from the very start of the planning stage - and at every phase of its development - advising the core programmers on any vulnerabilities they might inadvertently introduced into the their code.

"Whether you are an engineer, IT professional, magician or martial artist - and I am all of the above - it is possible to employ these engineering (i.e., problem-solving) skills to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of whatever you do," avers Brass Bullet's Jon Holt. "Most of engineering is about applying common sense which, as we all know, is non-too common which means there will always be a need for problem-solvers and, hence, engineers."

IT is known as a sector fuelled by fast-moving innovation, and as being 'market driven'. This means that IT professionals working for both end-user organisations and the IT industry itself, have to be constantly encountering new technologies and reappraising their own abilities to assimilate them.

The dilemma some parts of the IT profession now faces is that as IT systems get ever-more complex and interoperative, individual specialisms start to become marginalised. Specialist skills that only five years ago were much in demand, and that commanded a premium in terms of salaries and perks, are less sought after. Company networks supporting wide suites of applications - from service-oriented architectures (SOA) and video streaming, to supporting enterprise mobility - require the IT teams running them to possess a broad base of technological skills, with specialist background forming only the bedrock of their core competences.

IT is still a new profession compared to engineering; you could argue that IT is now at the stage that engineering was in its Victorian heyday. As the number of IT professionals continues to grow - according to UK Trade & Investment, the ICT sector now employs over a million people in the UK - they will find themselves drawn into an ongoing process of continuous professional development in order to uphold their status in the workplace and ensure employability going forward.

The expectations placed at the portals of the trade bodies and learned societies seeking to support consolidation of that professionalism would do well to observe the lessons of history.

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