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Don't Call Me an Engineer

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When I go on campus to do university recruiting, or I’m in a non-technical social situation where I must explain what I do for a living, I often take great pains to explain what should be a simple thing. My title in my company is “Senior Software Engineer” but I always very precisely call myself a “software developer,” “programmer,” or “software nerd.”

I am uncomfortable specifically with the “engineer” label, and that discomfort stems primarily from a panel discussion I attended in conjunction with the UW Engineering Career Services group.

For some background, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Computer Science is not part of the School of Engineering, but a department in the School of Letters & Science. Even so, Computer Science students are given leave to particpate in School of Engineering career fairs and recruiting due to the crossover technical skillset.

As someone who conducts on-campus interviews and attends career fairs for my company at UW I was invited to a panel discussion on “starting your first engineering job after graduating.” It was a fantastic topic for a panel because many seniors are so busy interviewing, wrapping up courses, and thinking about relocation concerns that they often don’t think much about the actual beginning of a professional career. Other folks on the panel included chemical engineers, industrial engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers and more.

Topics ranged across the board (Do you work a lot of hours? Do you like your boss? Have you been promoted yet?) but one that stuck with me was the question: “Should I pay/study for my engineer certification? Is it better to do it before interviewing or will my employer fund the cost?” Many engineers on the panel had various opinions and it really did vary widely by field, but when it got to me I just shrugged and told the truth: there is no professional certification to be a software “engineer”. There are certainly certifications for working with a particular software system, but there is no certification that will allow you to be insured against writing buggy software.1

I admire engineers and really only want to drive on bridges and use power tools that were designed by professional engineers. Software developers CAN produce incredible feats of redundant, bug-free software system design and implementation but with the stipulation that time and process are needed to accomplish such things. There likely do exist folks with the sufficient experience and knowledge to be called software engineers, but I am not one of them and they are few and far between.

In the tech sphere this is really more of an academic conversation- we all speak the same language. Everyone at your software company has some flavor of “engineer” in their title, and no one thinks twice about it. When thrust into the larger world of engineers, however, the loosey-goosey nature of software development and it’s similarity to more of a craft than a discipline make strict adherance to standards of proven technical excellence difficult.

What do you think? Does the typical professional software development environment make you think of “engineering” in the same way that mechanical or civil engineers practice it? Does the fact that we do TDD/BDD make up for the fact that software tends not to have perfectly understood natural laws it must follow?

  1. This argument has indeed been made many times before; this post is more my feelings about it.