We Aren’t Engineers

Sorry, software developers, but here’s the truth: we aren’t engineers.

We can become engineers by completing the certification process required by our states’ licensing boards, but until then we’re no more entitled to represent ourselves as engineers than as lawyers, pharmacists, or doctors.

There’s a good reason for this. We’re willing to entrust otherwise-anonymous doctors with our health solely on the hard-earned reputation of the medical profession. Similarly, we outsource the safety of our cars, homes, and water treatment plants to the training and good judgment of professional engineers. Poaching their title — but not their qualification process or professional code — risks public confidence and undermines the trust society has placed in them.

Put another way, if you knew an airplane was designed by a software developer, would you fly on it? Maybe it’s perfectly safe: just a python-loving aerospace veteran waxing nostalgic from the safe vantage of a second career. But from the outside, there’s no way to tell.

So call us developers, programmers, or my recent favorite: “technology designers.” But we’re not engineers.

The four years of school, four more of supervised practice, all-day exam, and professional recommendations it takes to become an engineer may seem like an eternity in the breathless world of tech. But programs aren’t airplanes, either, and there’s every reason to believe in a happy middle ground. Yes. Rather than borrowing our legitimacy from another profession, we could strive to develop independent qualifications and an unimpeachable reputation of our own.

By upholding professional ethics, unifying our licensing practices, and delivering reputable work, programmers can work to earn the same public trust we accord to engineers. Every product we build and every feature we deliver is an opportunity to build an iota of confidence. But we must be consistent: just as lapses at Bhopal stain the credibility of an entire discipline, each security lapse or breach of our users’ trust means a big step back for us all.

No matter what titles HR gives us, representing ourselves as engineers serves neither profession. Borrowed labels won’t buy us trust. But through our example, diligence, and the pursuit of the public good, we can earn it.

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