An alliance of engineering groups is campaigning for a software engineering PE exam. Will state licensing boards agree?
By Danielle Boykin
Newer-model cars, nuclear reactors, air traffic control systems, and even roller coasters all have one important attribute in common. They operate with vital software systems that, if not engineered properly, can fail and result in terrible consequences. Yet, software engineering licensure is still heavily debated and exists in only one state—Texas. An alliance of several engineering groups, however, is on a mission to highlight the importance of software engineering licensure and campaign for development of a software engineering PE exam.
The Software Engineering Licensure Consortium is determined to show that failed software projects pose great risks to public health, safety, and welfare. Not only do failed systems have potential to harm lives, but they can also result in wasted taxpayer money, a lack of public services, security breaches, exposure of confidential data, and incorrect or missing information. According to data provided by the group, it's estimated that $275 billion is spent annually on software projects in the U.S. and at least $60 billion is lost on failed projects.
The consortium, which met in July to discuss the issue during the NSPE Annual Conference in Denver, includes representatives from NSPE's Licensure & Qualifications for Practice Committee, NSPE's Professional Engineers in Industry, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics EngineersUSA Licensing and Registration Committee, the IEEE Communications Society, the IEEE Computer Society, the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, the California Society of Professional Engineers, and several NSPE members who serve on state licensing boards. Staff from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying are also participating in a resource role.
NSPE's roots in software engineering date back to a meeting in Detroit in 2000 where NSPE Past President Kathryn Gray, P.E., organized a panel discussion on the topic. Since this time, NSPE's Professional Engineers in Industry (PEI) has promoted software engineering licensure through its Software Engineering Taskforce. The taskforce published a document, Recommendation for Computer and Software Engineering, which was a partial catalyst for NSPE to host the consortium meeting in Denver.
Software engineering is defined as the application and/or study of a systematic, disciplined, quantifiable approach to the development, operation, and maintenance of software that has an impact on the lives, property, economy, or security of people or the national defense. Software engineers touch almost every facet of public life.
Infrastructure: Emergency dispatch system services, fire alarms and sprinklers, emergency shutdown systems, and public water supply
Medicine: Ventilators, implant devices, and medical infusion pumps
Energy: Electrical grid systems, nuclear reactors, petroleum pumps, and override systems
Transportation: Railway signals and controls; automobile airbags, brakes, and seatbelts; air traffic control systems; and automated traffic control systems
Financial: Banking systems and information security
Government: GPS satellites, radio communications, artillery controls, and aircraft systems
Recreation: Amusement park rides
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that computer software engineering is projected to be one of the fastest growing occupations from 2004 to 2014. Computer software engineers held about 800,000 jobs in 2004. Although they are employed in most industries, the largest concentration of computer software engineers (30%) are in computer systems design and related services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also noted that engineering firms specializing in bridges and power plants hire software engineers to design and develop new geographic data systems and automated drafting systems.
There are currently 23 software engineering bachelor's degree programs, according to the American Society of Engineering Education. Since 2003, 15 of these programs have been accredited by ABET. During the fall 2006 semester, more than 1,600 students were enrolled in these programs, and 196 and 218 students graduated with software engineering degrees in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Texas became the first state to award a software engineering license in 1998 and remains the only state in the U.S. to do so, although some Canadian provinces, the United Kingdom, and Australia license software engineers. The Texas Board of Professional Engineers recently ended the experience-only path to software licensure in 2006. "It's very difficult now to become a licensed software engineer in Texas," says Lance Kinney, P.E., deputy executive director at TBPE. "That's why we are helping to push for this exam development." Currently, there are 63 active PEs with software engineering listed as their primary or secondary designation and seven out of this group reside outside of the state.
Licensure candidates currently have to take the electrical or computer engineering PE exams. But Kinney says the exams don't reach far enough into software engineering and remain somewhat unrelated. "It's a very extensive process to get an exam built, but the first step is to get NCEES to say yes," says Kinney.
Dan Wittliff, P.E., a member of the Industrial Advisory Committee of the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, believes that the issue of software engineering licensure has been simmering for a few years and the time is right to move forward. He got involved with the consortium because he is passionate about this issue of licensure. "I don't want any engineer to be deprived of the ability to get licensed simply because there isn't a proper exam," says Wittliff. "I believe in licensure, and I believe it's the right thing to do."
The consortium's main goal is to knock down the first obstacle to software licensure. "The first impediment to licensure is the recognition of software engineering as a sufficiently different discipline that is not covered by other examinations and other fields of study and has a definite impact on public safety as well as public resources," says Wittliff, who serves as the group's facilitator.
Before NCEES can start developing a PE exam in software engineering, the consortium will need to convince at least 10 licensing boards that an exam is necessary. Targeted states include those with high-tech centers and those that are home to ABET-accredited software engineering programs. "A lot of the states say that they won't license as a specific practice area any field of engineering that doesn't have a stand-alone exam," says Wittliff, who is also a member of the NSPE Board of Directors. "This is the acid test for regulating bodies for whether they will recognize it or not."
The issue of software engineering licensure and its necessity has been met with some resistance, particularly from companies that employ software engineers who would be required to become licensed. Wittliff makes it clear that it's not the consortium's goal to tamper with the industry exemption statutes. "Our goal is to only look at the software engineering tasks that affect public health, safety, and welfare," says Wittliff.
Mitch Thornton, P.E., also agrees that addressing this issue is long overdue. "Almost every aspect of anyone's life is touched by software," says Thornton, who is providing information to the IEEEUSA's Licensure and Registration Committee about the consortium's activities. "This is clearly an issue of public safety."
Thornton blames the delay on a lack of understanding of the software engineering discipline. "I think that many people do not appreciate or understand the role that software has in everyday life," says the professor at Southern Methodist University's School of Engineering in Dallas. "The debate has been about whether this is real engineering. The question should be: Does it affect public health, safety, and welfare? The answer is a resounding yes."
Thornton adds, "The traditional path to licensure is a three-pronged approach: education, experience, and examination. We are looking now to put in the third prong."
The issue of software engineering licensure also touches both the business and legal arenas. Kathryn Gray is a strong advocate for licensure of software engineers—so strong that she strives to hire only licensed engineers rather than computer programmers to work at her software engineering firm, GrayTech Software Inc., in Wheaton, Illinois. The opportunities in software engineering, particularly education, have greatly evolved since Gray established her firm in 1983. Yet, she still finds it tough to fill her employment requirements because the pool of licensed engineers in software is small.
Gray is hopeful that the consortium's work is a step in the right direction for the field. "If someone goes through the process of getting licensed, they are taking on the responsibility that the program that they are creating is properly designed and they take into account what effect that program has on the health, safety, and welfare of the public, and that's the key issue," says Gray, who has advised PEI's Software Engineering Taskforce in the past.
John Cosgrove, P.E., has been a software engineer for more than 40 years. The California resident, who is also a forensic engineer, considers speaking out in favor of licensure as one of his "zealotries" because of a rise in litigation involving computers and software. "The lawyers have discovered software as a major business area and we need to get this right," he says.
Cosgrove says the obscure nature of software makes professional quality development practices so much more important than in conventional engineering. "You don't know whether anything meets specifications or is any good until it's all put together," he says. "This is where the engineering process is doubly important. Because without the quality practices, you have no control over anything with no visibility to what's going on until much later in development."
Cosgrove says that licensure advocates will need to make both a solid legal and a strong business case. "Our whole economy is dependant on computer systems working right," he says. "Maybe the legal system is one vehicle, but it also gets down to an engineering manager and budget allocation. Unless you can demonstrate very clearly that he is better served by spending money on quality, it's not going to happen."
Cosgrove is certain that licensure will make not only his job in the legal arena easier, but also bring the software engineering community within the umbrella of professionalism. "If you're dealing with a professional engineer, we have ways of enforcing good practice—lawyers have ways of enforcing good practice, doctors have ways of enforcing good practice," he says. "It's not perfect, but much better when you have it. We have a long road to professionalism ahead of us, but we have to take the first step."
In 1998, Donald Bagert, P.E., became the first person in the U.S. to receive a software engineering license. Bagert has a career in academia and has not yet put his seal to use, but he remains convinced that there needs to be a method in place to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public from potential problems caused by the improper engineering of software.
Bagert, chair of Southeast Missouri State University's computer science department and former director of the software engineering program at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, foresees that the implementation of a software engineering exam will have a ripple effect on education. "I think it will be much easier to get schools to start software engineering programs and get them accredited if there is a better method for licensure," he says.
Bagert says that the software engineering community will need to be the strongest voice for licensure. "If the engineering community, in particular the licensure boards, feel that software engineers need to be licensed, it's important for the software engineering community to help them with this concern," says the professor. "We are the best people to present to the engineering community what software engineering is."