THE NOTION OF what consti- tutes a profession has been studied extensively through exploration of the attributes of the activities, roles, and
community that lead to their rise,
definition, and how they achieve im-
portance and influence and society.
Common among these attributes are
a deep technical expertise, an essential, valued, societal contribution,
and the need to adhere to high ethical and technical standards. Professions such as medicine, law, and
accounting exemplify these attributes. Computing exhibits all of the
attributes of a profession.
Deep Technical Expertise. Every day
we witness and drive computing’s rapid
technical advance—new technologies,
advancing sophistication, and outright
new capabilities. The compounding of
this continued and accelerating advance
give rise to a deep technical expertise. Algorithms and systems behavioral and internal complexity are peers to the greatest complexities humanity has known in
biology, society, and the universe.
Societal Recognition. Computing’s
evident importance to society is deep
and growing—sophisticated collection
and information processing underpins
decision-making, logistics, and optimization industry and commerce. Web,
email, and messaging platforms are the
information backbone of government
and commerce. Social application
platforms expand these roles from official to social, insinuating computing
into the core of social fabric. A world
without cheap, pervasive computing of
extraordinary capability is if not inconceivable at least so distant as to be unrecognizable. Just as modern existence
without the practice of medicine or law
would be unimaginable.
Necessity for High Ethical and Techni-
cal Standards. The practice of comput-
ing demands adherence to the highest
technical and ethical standards, and
failure has significant consequences at
personal, corporate, national, and inter-
national scale. Computing applications
reach into every corner. Appropriation,
misuse, or just free flow of this informa-
tion has demonstrably destroyed indi-
vidual privacy, relationships, and careers
(for example, Ashley Madison), grand
corporate plans (for example, Sony), and
radically changed international rela-
tions (for example, U.S. Govt OPM pen-
etration, and Snowden releases).
With growing excitement for artifi-cal intelligence, computing is being
thrust into new societal roles (
recommender, decider) and given autonomy
to make decisions with life-changing
human impact (personal assistant,
sentencing guidelines, self-driving
cars). While deep technical challenges
abound, the ethical challenges, principles, and standards are even more
daunting. Compared to Hanks’ “
rule-book” in Bridge of Spies, the underlying
principles of a representative government, as embodied in the Constitution
of the U.S., and one can only wonder if
the issues are any less thorny.
So yes, computing is a profession, and
we should proudly embrace the responsibility. We should welcome, educate,
and mentor new generations not just
as “coders” and “hackers” or programmers, but as computing professionals.
Computing professionals have a
responsibility to practice at the state-
of-the-art, and maintain their knowl-
edge at the forefront. In addition,
professionals have an obligation to
share clear understanding of the tech-
nology and its implications to non-
professionals, and operate in accord
with professional ethics.
2 These are
daunting goals for an individual, and
so professional societies play a critical
role in cultivating and supporting pro-
fessionalism. What roles specifically?
First, a professional society should be
a conservator and disseminator of deep
technical knowledge and expertise:
championing the advance of the field by
leading technologists worldwide, documenting the state-of-the-art in technology and application, and accelerating the
dissemination and availability of such
knowledge to computing professionals.
Second, societies develop and advocate principles for ethical technical conduct that frame the role of computing
professionals, and buttress them with the
stature and role of the profession in society. Examples include the articulation
of best practices, intellectual challenges
for the field,
3 as well as address societal
questions that require deep technical
perspective, such as the USACM joint release on the Internet of Things.
An independent professional society
must transcend any individual, organization, government, or cause. Necessarily
so, as technical knowledge and professional ethics must inform professional conduct, and inevitably come into
conflict with personal interest, corporate interest, government or national
interest, or even overt coercion.
As the leading computing professional society, the ACM seeks to fill
these roles for computing!
Andrew A. Chien, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Andrew A. Chien is the William Eckhardt Distinguished
Service Professor in the CS Department at the University
of Chicago, Director of the CERES Center for Unstoppable
Computing, and a Senior Scientist at Argonne National Lab.
1. Abbott, A. The System of Professions: An Essay on the
Division of Expert Labor. University of Chicago Press,
1988, ISBN-13: 978-0226000695
2. ACM Code of Ethics, (1992); https://www.acm.org/
3. Denning, P.J. The Profession of IT. Columns in
Commun. ACM, 2008–2017.
4. USACM. Statement on Internet of Things Privacy and
Security, 2017; https://www.acm.org/
Copyright held by author.
Computing Is a Profession
DOI: 10.1145/3137136 Andrew A. Chien