NSPE President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE, has submitted a letter to the editor in response to an article by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic that says computer programmers who call themselves “engineers” are undermining “a long tradition of designing and building infrastructure in the public interest.”
The article, “Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers,” says, “When it comes to skyscrapers and bridges and power plants and elevators and the like, engineering has been, and will continue to be, managed partly by professional standards, and partly by regulation around the expertise and duties of engineers. But fifty years’ worth of attempts to turn software development into a legitimate engineering practice have failed.
“Just as the heavy industry can greenwash to produce the appearance of environmental responsibility and the consumer industry can pinkwash to connect themselves to cause marketing, so the technology industry can “engineerwash”—leveraging the legacy of engineering in order to make their products and services appear to engender trust, competence, and service in the public interest.” (Read Bogost's take on the comments his article has received.)
The message is one that NSPE and engineering organizations in Canada have been making since at least the mid-1990s. At the time, NSPE President Clyde Tipton, P.E., F.NSPE, wrote to the president of Novell Inc., about the company’s “Certified Novell Engineer” program. Tipton expressed concern about the name’s potential conflict with state licensing laws, and he suggested a dialogue with company executives. Novell rejected the request. Like Bogost wrote: “software development has become institutionally hermetic. And that’s the opposite of what ‘engineering’ ought to mean: a collaboration with the world, rather than a separate domain bent on overtaking it.”
In addition to Tipton’s letter, state licensing boards in Delaware, Mississippi, Texas, and Utah also notified Novell of their concerns.
In Canada, where the terms “professional engineer” and “engineer” are protected, the Professional Engineers of Ontario entered negotiations with Novell Canada about the use of “engineer.” Later, in 1999, PEO announced that it would begin licensing software engineers.
Microsoft was also challenged for misusing “engineer.” In 2001, the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (now Engineers Canada), announced that Microsoft had agreed to stop using the term in its certification programs.
In the US, NSPE has played a lead role in developing the licensing of software engineers. As a member of the Software Engineering Consortium, NSPE partnered with IEEE-USA (the lead technical society), the IEEE Computer Society, and the Texas Board of Professional Engineers to develop the licensing exam.
As TBPE Executive Director Lance Kinney, P.E., said, "Individuals performing software engineering never realized a need for [licensing] and didn't see a route for it. They were able to say, 'This doesn't apply to me,' Now it can apply to them. They have a real path now."
Published November 11, 2015 by NSPE