Are We Engineers?

This is probably a topic that is regularly debated in programming forums, but it’s still one that I think is worth revisiting regularly as our industry evolves. For those of us that write code, that develop software, are we engineers?

That’s the topic of a piece in the more mainstream media. It’s a bit of an attack on the software industry in general, noting that engineers are typically certified and regulated. They are subject to continuing education and apprenticeship. While certainly many of us continue to learn, it’s very informal, and not structured. Our education certainly isn’t certified in any meaningful way, though we often aren’t even really liable for our work. The cost of bad code is usually a job, with another one often easily found.

Engineering is defined as:  the work of designing and creating large structures (such as roads and bridges) or new products or systems by using scientific methods. By that definition, I think we are engineers. We use scientific methods, primarily the hypothesis, test, (usually) fail, change the hypothesis. The hypothesis we use are lines of code, which are often wrong and need work to get fixed. A additional definition includes: the design and manufacture of complex products <software engineering>. That’s us. Even the most trivial application today is likely seen as complex by layman. If most of us bothered to dig into the libraries we use, we might see them as very complex.

We certainly aren’t engineers in terms of the formal knowledge and liability that exists in our profession. There is little, often because we can fix problems quickly. Or maybe because even if our systems fail, issues can be undone by additional work. That’s not always true, but it does seem as though those systems which are costly when they fail (medical, financial systems), have some recourse available to those affected. Not always, but there isn’t always recourse in the analog world.

I wonder if we’ll get to the point where we require some evaluation or measurement of skills (or code) from software engineers for certain disciplines. My guess is not, as the world of software changes too quickly, and allows for too many different scales of acceptable performance to really certify anything. My guess is the world will continue to struggle with determining the liability and responsibility of software failure as we depend more and more on computing infrastructure in our world.

Likely this is an argument that will never end.

Steve Jones

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