Finally, a PE Path for Software Engineers

December 2012

Finally, a PE Path for Software Engineers


NSPE President Dan Wittliff, P.E., F.NSPEAn ancient philosopher said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. The journey to license software engineers as professional engineers began in 1998 when the Texas Board of Professional Engineers licensed Don Bagert as the first PE in software engineering in the United States. The Texas board licensed more than 60 other software engineers by experience.

Airplanes, banking systems, cars, electrical grids, medical equipment, and nuclear reactors all contain vital software systems. A failure of these systems could produce harmful and widespread consequences for the public. Six years ago, the Software Engineering Licensing Consortium (an alliance of engineering organizations including NSPE, IEEE-USA, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, and TBPE) believed that the critical nature of some engineered software systems to the public health, safety, and welfare clearly indicated that the time was right to move the software engineering field onto the path to licensure.

After a three-year exam development effort lead by IEEE-USA, NCEES will administer the first PE exam in software engineering in April 2013, thus providing thousands of software engineers with a path to licensure. This examination now completes the three pillars of licensure: education, experience, and examination.

The new exam marks the first time that any new PE exam has met the rigorous standards enacted by NCEES in 2002, including garnering letters from 10 state licensing boards who support developing an exam.

The new exam will also promote comity among the states by providing consistency in the way software engineers are licensed in the future. Prior to the new exam, licensure candidates practicing as software engineers had to take an exam in another discipline.

What is Software Engineering?
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, from infrastructure, medicine, and energy to transportation, finance, government, and recreation.

Who's Affected?
Software engineering licensure and its necessity have been met with some resistance, particularly from companies that employ software engineers who would be required to become licensed. Throughout the organization of the Software Engineering Licensing Consortium's efforts and the subsequent exam development, one thing was clear to the participants: It was not our goal to tamper with industry-exemption statutes. Instead, the SELC's goal was to only look at the software engineering tasks that affect public health, safety, and welfare.

Although software engineers are employed in most industries, the largest concentration (30%) can be found in computer systems design and related services, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS also notes that engineering firms specializing in bridges and power plants hire software engineers to design and develop new geographic data systems and automated drafting systems.

What's Next?
studentCreating the PE exam for software engineering was the first critical step to knocking down barriers to licensure. The next phase will involve communicating the value of licensure for software engineers, said TBPE Executive Director Lance Kinney, P.E., in the October issue of PE. "Individuals performing software engineering never realized a need for it and didn't see a route for it. They were able to say, 'This doesn't apply to me,'" he says. "Now it can apply to them. They have a real path now."

A software engineering practice standards guide was introduced to the boards during the recent NCEES annual meeting to assist them with determining if their jurisdiction should license engineers in this discipline. The guide advises boards that if the failure of a software system presents a significant risk to life, health, or property then the development of the software falls under the definition of the practice of engineering and should be performed by a licensed engineer with software knowledge.

Engineers working for government entities and large firms may be exempt depending on their state law, particularly if they are being supervised by a licensed engineer. Jurisdictions may require licensure of engineers who are sole practitioners offering services directly to the public or who work for a limited liability corporation.

In conclusion, the role played by NSPE's Professional Engineers in Industry and the Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee in bringing the new exam to fruition cannot be understated. Also, without the continued support of NSPE presidents and directors, it is unlikely that the consortium's work would have borne the fruit it has. Congratulations to all who had a part in this effort. It will serve as a model for providing emerging engineering disciplines with a path to licensure in the future.