Why all software engineers should wear a ring on their little right finger
The night before my flight, I picked up an Accurist wrist watch that my Grandfather, a mechanical engineer, received on his 21st birthday in 1949. When I’d received it I had been told it was broken. I felt compelled to wind it up. It stated ticking away. I wondered about the things I was engineering. Would the Wikipedia code I work on, be ticking away in 71 years time, like this watch? Would my contributions to the web e.g. blog posts on Medium still be available?
While I walked through airport security the lady behind me asked me if I was an engineer.
I was a little surprised. I didn’t know this person and somehow they knew my profession. What had given it away? Was it because I was wearing a hoodie? (surely not). Was it the stickers on my laptop? (no my laptop was upside down). Was I wearing a nerdy t-shirt? (no). How did you know?
She pointed to her little finger on her right thing. I saw you are wearing a ring on your little finger, she said.
I laughed. Oh that’s the only finger my ring fits on, I told her. I got it when I was 15 from my mother and it’s been slowly moving down my hand. I spent 5 years with it on my right ring finger and everyone thought I was married. Traditionally, in the United Kingdom, we wear the wedding finger on the left hand and I had no idea it was the opposite for the United States. I sometimes ponder whether that was why I had so many bad dates when I dated in San Francisco.
How funny, she said. Maybe the engineer ring is an American and Canadian thing.
Our conversation was interrupted as I was ushered to go through the x-ray scanner. I pushed down my jeans and lifted my arms. My whole body scrutinised by thousands of invisible rays.
I bet she’s a real engineer, I thought as I stood in there. Creating things that last. Things that are useful to humanity.
My bag was marked for a second check, so we were able to continue our conversation on the other side of the scanner.
Is it any kind of engineering I ask? Or only specific disciplines that wear the ring?
“Any,” she said. I feel vindicated.
“What kind of engineer are you?”
A chemical engineer.
See! A real kind of engineer!
The ring is supposed to signal a commitment to ethics. The idea is that if anything has passed through your hands it’s of good quality and ethically made.
I like that, I said. I’m happy this ring landed on my finger. It’s not an engineering ring, but I’ll think of it as one from now on.
As I sat waiting for my flight, I looked up the history of the ring. Its roots seem to be traceable back to the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse which killed 75 of the 86 workers due to the design of the bridge insufficiently supporting its own weight. Basically something bad happened that caused engineers to take a step back. My web searches led me to the The Order of the Engineer manual.
The manual describes the symbolism and the ceremony for receiving a ring. Essentially engineers make a vow and get a ring to symbolise their commitment to that vow — to that discipline— very much how we take a vow in a marriage to honour a relationship. The words the receiver recites were apparently written by Rudyard Kipling¹(although I cannot find the source).
In the ceremony the receiver of the ring recites the following:
I AM AN ENGINEER. IN MY PROFESSION I TAKE DEEP PRIDE.
TO IT I OWE SOLEMN OBLIGATIONS.
Software engineering should be an engineering discipline to be proud of. On our best days, we make systems that humans interact with. Systems that make humans more efficient. We free up human time to do the things that matter most.
On those days we are actually no different from engineers who help build bridges that connect people, or engineers that design medicines that heal and give people more time to spend with one another.
I think the reason I felt the way I did in the x-ray scanner was I don’t see enough of this. A lot of the systems we are building are trash. We (humanity) are building systems that waste people’s time, that make people miserable, that lock people into services they can’t escape.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We need to work on things that matter and that impact humanity for the other, not yet another GIF sharing site or a site to create zombies shouting LIKESSS LIKEESSS.
The vow continues:
AS AN ENGINEER, I PLEDGE TO PRACTICE INTEGRITY AND FAIR DEALING, TOLERANCE AND RESPECT; AND TO UPHOLD DEVOTION TO THE STANDARDS AND THE DIGNITY OF MY PROFESSION, CONSCIOUS ALWAYS THAT MY SKILL CARRIES WITH IT THE OBLIGATION TO SERVE HUMANITY BY MAKING THE BEST USE OF THE EARTH’S PRECIOUS WEALTH
I like this. Software development needs more of this. More inclusiveness and more respect in the environments we build this. We need to build systems that uphold to standards — whether it be performance or Making sure we build systems that last rather than systems that fall apart in a year.
The vow finishes with:
AS AN ENGINEER, I SHALL PARTICIPATE IN NONE BUT HONEST ENTERPRISES. WHEN NEEDED, MY SKILL AND KNOWLEDGE SHALL BE GIVEN WITHOUT RESERVATION FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD.IN THE PERFORMANCE OF DUTY AND IN FIDELITY TO MY PROFESSION, I SHALL GIVE MY UTMOST.
I read through these words and think they make a lot of sense for software engineers. I decide the ring on my rightmost finger is an engineering ring and I think more software engineers should wear engineering rings.
As we type on keyboards whether it be alone or during pair programming sessions they can serve as a visual reminder to ourselves to not cut corners and to write good code that lasts, is easier for the next poor software engineer to maintain and has extensive documentation.
As we eat lunch together or wave together in Google Meets, we can remind ourselves to support one another, that together we are in a profession of great pride and great responsibility.
In meetings where bad decisions and are being made and ethics are being questions we can use the ring as a signal that we need to speak our minds and we should feel empowered to do so.
Why we work on things matters. How we work together matters. As does what we build, how we build it, and who we build it for. Sometimes it’s easy to forget this an I think there is much room for improvement here. Possibly a ring and a vow might be a small thing we could all to get us there.
¹ While I’ve always admired Kipling’s ability with words, given the context of this blog post, I should note that it’s unfortunate that Kipling was likely an imperialist and racist.