The Cheapening of the Engineer Title

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

Filed under: software development, professionalism, State Licensing Boards,


As with any technical discipline, there are programmers whose work is just a commodity, and others whose work is critical to the protection of the public welfare. Just read up on the Therac-25 radiation therapy machine to understand even the earliest need for licensure. It's good there is a path forward now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 5:22 PM by Jeff Lentz

I, for one, would welcome programmers as engineers IF that meant they and their places of employment would be held to the same standards and socio-economic responsibilities and liabilities as those of us who currently posess the title of Professional Engineer. For example, it would be singularly rewarding to sue the pants off of Microsoft and sanction any associated licensed programmers for Windows 8.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 5:35 PM by Ken Ferry, P.E.

I can't dispute the need to require engineers in the computer world to be held to the same standards as other licensed engineers.  However, as with any techical pursuits and their resulting products offered for sale, regulations lead to a complacency of the individual buyers' responsibilities to be aware of what they are buying.  "Let the buyer beware" still applies no matter how tightly any professional pursuit is regulated, and if we eventually forget it we'll end up living in a police state.

Monday, December 07, 2015 9:29 AM by Kurt Leininger, P.E.

WHat is one todo if the employer in the USA using / applying Industrial Exemption titles the employee as a
Lead Software Engineer ?  
The employee may be happy to use designation of Software Developer but it is the employer and in many cases  a name recognized  leader in the world who asigns the job title of an Engineer.
Mike ...

Wednesday, January 06, 2016 4:07 AM by

I am hearing this noise from last few years about title ENGINEER and protecting it. I am Civil Engineer myself. I find it obnoxious when NCEES, state board and Professional Engineer's start crying about word ENGINEER and protecting it so that they can protect their interest (rather than Public Interest)....NCEES and all these Professinal societies are like a syndicate similar NFL who looks for their own interest more than Public at any given day. I would like to ask one question to them what kinda of innovation or new techniques did this Engineering Industry introduced after making PE as a requirement. Most of the innovation or new techniques came from other UNPROTECTED industries where there is no requirement of PE. I would like to stop calling myself ENGINEER after this narrow minded thinking where having PE or Degree makes you smart overnight and other guys can not call them ENGINEER even if there have a Degree....Ancient people who built Pyramids or famous Historic strucures where never PE's or matter of fact they were not even a ENGINEER and still those structure stand like new after so many years and so called PE's have their structures designed and lasted only for 100 year !!!. Now a day everyting is computerized and their are many tiers of QA and checks happen before getting any plan approved by any agencies...Only thing these societies acheieve by making PE and other stupid rules is that they push away aspiring ENGINEERs away from the industry. God Bless these so called SMART Professional Engineers and engineering societies....

Thursday, January 21, 2016 9:09 PM by Pissed off Civil Engineer

I think it would be great for Software Engineering to actually communicate something. It should reflect someone that has proven their ability and their committment to safety and quality.
Programming is sort of a wild wild west. Anyone who can program can rise in ranks. Programmers end up playing many roles you might think should belong in a Software Engineer's scope, or an architecht.
I think when its appropriate for a project, there should be a distinguishing role for a Software Engineer to guide the project toward safety, quality, etc. The programmers can then do their thing under guidance.
We are at the point right now though that it will be incredibly hard to straighten things out. The low cost of entry for a programmer and the ability to fairly easily deliver useful software that people want makes this even harder. How do we try and tame this? How do we convince companies to stop using the title Software Engineer? Maybe the idea is to not change the title (might be too late for this), but just push the license and let the effectiveness of having a licensed Software Engineer guiding a project lead the industry in the right direction.
I recently took a class at Penn State, which was lead by Phillip LaPlante. LaPlante is very smart, talented, and is playing an important role in our Industry. There are many ideas of his that I disagree with, though. In this article about licensing software engineers,, LaPlante talks about licensing not affecting many Software Engineers. This sounds like he is suggesting Licensing is only needed for the very few at the top. I might be misunderstanding this, and LaPlante might be saying this as well, but to me, licensing would be valuable even for team leads of smaller teams.
I'm very interested in the idea of improving the current state of affairs of the Software Engineering industry. I am learning what this means myself, and hope to make a difference. You can read my thoughts in my blog,

Thursday, October 13, 2016 8:13 AM by Steven Ford

I cannot say how many people I have met and have worked with over the years that call themselves "engineers" and/or have been hired by companies as (and have been titled as) "engineers" without having an engineering degree--let alone a P.E.
I will never get over the fact that I worked so hard to earn an ABET accredited mechanical engineering degree, only to hear so many non-degreed engineering co-workers complain that they don't have the same priveledges as some other workers because of a " lousy piece of paper". One guy I worked with in the Space Industry was titled "Level 6 engineer", and could not do basic math. One day, I was talking with him at his desk. I happened to glance down at a paper on his desk, and saw the Pythagorean theorem/equation: a^2 + b^2 = c^2, written down, but his hypotenuse for the right triangle was labeled as the "a" leg instead of "c". When I mentioned to him that it was incorrect, he said, "No, I can call any leg of the triangle a, b, or c". I explained why his thinking was in error. For this particular problem, his mistake would (most likely) have caused a disaster--Thank God someone was there to catch it. I recall another so called "6th level engineer" working with me at the same place. When I mentioned to him that he had "million" instead of "billion" on one of his drawings, he replied, "how much more is a billion than a million?" I thought he was joking at first, but he was dead serious, and he wasn't the type of guy that joked around like that. As I paused and stared at him, he must have become very embarrassed because he turned as red as an apple. He then said, "If it's just a little more, then I don't think we need to change it". Both of these guys were working there for over 30 years but neither one had a college degree. They both started out as drafters and " worked their way up". Both of them were getting paid much more than me too. If a doctor who treated you, told you that he started out as a candy striper or an orderly, but "worked his way up", would that be okay with you? Just remember, if a doctor makes mistake he can cause the death of a person. If someone acting as an engineer makes a mistake, he can literally cause the death of thousands of people. Yet, a doctor needs to be licensed, and an engineer is not even required to have a degree. I believe all engineers should be degreed and licensed. Why hasn't a law been passed for this?

Saturday, October 22, 2016 4:22 AM by Thoroughly Disgusted

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