Is there value in software accreditation?

Chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications, Sikhumbuzo Kholwane, calls for software engineers to engage with government around regulation.
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Chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications, Sikhumbuzo Kholwane, calls for software engineers to engage with government around regulation.

“Accreditation is an academic preoccupation. I see no value in it.”

On this controversial note, David Hislop, chairman of the IEEE Computer Society South Africa, opened the fourth biennial Software Engineering Colloquium (SE12), at Old Mutual West Campus, in Cape Town (Pinelands), on Thursday.

The lone maverick

Hislop's comments sparked a snap poll among delegates, which revealed a variety of opinions - broadly (but not always) congruent with their role with respect to software.

His words, for instance, were a defence of the practitioner's viewpoint, the lone maverick creative who doesn't want to be controlled, regulated or stifled.

The academic

Another speaker, Hans Muller, of the University of Stellenbosch, argued in qualified support, pointing out the difference between accreditation of institutions (which he supports) and certification of individuals (who often contribute to innovation, but would be hard-pressed to conform to certification).

The benefits of accreditation

Professor Aurora Gerber set out the benefits and disadvantages of accreditation in her keynote, noting the diversity of perspectives on the issue.

* From the academic viewpoint, accreditation serves as an international benchmark
* It supports enrolment in ICT courses
* It imbues the industry with relevance through feedback
* But it is costly

* Form the government perspective, regulation of an industry minimises risk of loss through incompetence

* Accreditation supports quality entrants
* It feeds into continuing professional development

“My concern is that we're limiting the number of people allowed to code,” said Muller. “Are we creating an exclusive club here?”

Other academics pointed out the challenges of accreditation, while broadly agreeing with it. Retief Gerber, CEO of nano-circuit design software manufacturer NioCAD who is also attached to the University of Stellenbosch Engineering Faculty, noted the sheer administrative load of changing courseware.

“Quite often you find that the course is five years out of date by the time you've got it changed to your satisfaction.”

The employer

Employers, on the other hand, appeared largely in favour of accreditation. Telkom's Derek van der Merwe noted that the academic mould in which graduates are cast is quite 'broad' and needs further qualification. “If they're accredited upfront, that would indicate where they would be suited.”

Another speaker echoed this view, saying that, in his opinion, it is most vital that “the people doing the fundamental architectural work in an organisation” be certified.

Need for balance

The unspoken concession by many was that, while there is a need for standards, it is important not to stifle creativity.

What is needed may be a balanced approach, whereby institutions are held to quality standards, but developers who learned their craft outside academic institutions are also given freedom to operate.

Communicate and contribute

This view is supported by Sikhumbuzo Kholwane, chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications.

“South Africa is a consumer of ICT, not a creator of innovation,” he says. “We need all the ideas we can get. We urge software engineers to engage us. We are rethinking regulation to a pretty fundamental degree, and we want to ask industry to communicate and contribute.”

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