Re: suggested proposals for federal electionintegrity legislation

From: Barbara Simons <simons_at_acm_dot_org>
Date: Sat Nov 25 2006 - 16:06:41 CST

Hi, Alan. I don't want to get into a long discussion about the issues
surrounding the use of the phrase "computer engineer," since it's
really peripheral to the more pressing issues surrounding voting
machines. The fact is that some states have laws that require that
someone who calls him/herself an engineer of any kind be a PE, though
those laws typically are not enforced for computer people. We may have
an informal notion of what it means to be a computer engineer, though
in my opinion it is not a well defined term.

My sensitivity to the use of the word "engineer" came from my
involvement with opposition to a move, spearheaded by IEEE, to license
software engineers. (I was neutral when all of the work I discuss
below started). When talking about engineering, licensing legally
means being a PE. So far as I know, Texas is the only state that
currently requires that software engineers be licensed. New Mexico and
Missouri had been discussing licensing, but I don't know if those
efforts went anywhere, since I've stopped following this issue.

If you are interested in pursuing this topic further, you could start
with the report (it's short) issued by a Blue Ribbon ACM panel
commissioned to look into the licensing of software engineers. Some of
the folks on this panel included Bill Wulf, Fred Brooks, Dave Farber,
Peter Neumann, and Jim Gray, to name just a few. They were all quite
prominent and knowledgeable.

As a follow-on to the recommendations of that panel, I created two task
forces: one on licensing software engineers working on safety critical
software (it seems to me that work on voting machines should be viewed
as safety critical, but obviously that's not the way the vendors see
it) and the other on assessing the body of knowledge needed to become a
software engineer. The first task force was co-chaired by Nancy
Leveson and John Knight. When the panel began their work, John was a
firm believer in the need to license software engineers, and Nancy had
move from being a believer to neutrality, as a result of being on the
earlier (Blue Ribbon) panel. By the end, both were strongly opposed to
licensing. The task force produced a very interesting report.

The body of knowledge task force was chaired by David Notkin. That
task force concluded that currently it is not possible to construct a
viable body of knowledge that would be needed to license software

Below are two relevant passages from the safety critical panel report:

> Who is an engineer is defined by “practice acts,” i.e., defined by
> what the person does and not simply what they call themselves,
> although “title acts” also exist. It is illegal for somebody who is
> not licensed to use the title “engineer” or to practice an engineering
> profession in a state for which licensing is required. The rules for
> the licensing of PEs vary from state to state. Enforcement also
> varies. For example, the state of Oklahoma (and the model law)
> requires that faculty teaching engineering design classes must be
> licensed but this part of the Oklahoma law has not been enforced.
> However, it would apply potentially to any faculty member teaching a
> class in software engineering.


> Current PE activities with respect to software are limited to the
> state of Texas and a few private advocates. There are many factors
> behind these efforts. One of these seems to be a legitimate concern
> among engineers (including those involved in PE licensing in states
> other than Texas) that the term engineer is being abused by activities
> by some computer companies (such as Novell and Microsoft) to certify
> people as “Certified Novell Engineers” or “Microsoft Certified Systems
> Engineers.” In these cases, most people would agree that the use of
> the title “Engineer” is being abused and might be confusing to the
> public.

You can find ACM's position on licensing of software engineers,
together with links to all of the reports mentioned above, at

I realize that we use the phrases "computer engineering" and "software
engineering" all the time. But I think we need to be judicious in the
use of those phrases, because of the legal implications surrounding the
word "engineer".


On Nov 25, 2006, at 12:56 PM, Alan Dechert wrote:

> Barbara,
>> Hi, Kathy. I've looked at your list, and I have a number of comments
>> and thoughts. One that I'll throw in right now is that you should not
>> use the phrase "computer engineering". "Engineer" has a very precise
>> meaning, namely someone who has passed a set of requirements and
>> tests to become a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). ....
> Wait a minute! You've just denied most of the people in the computer
> engineering community the "engineer" title!
> People doing engineering work are commonly called "engineers," whether
> or
> not they've passed PE exams or received a degree in engineering. I've
> worked in the computer industry (9 commercial products at Borland and
> Intel)
> with a music degree. EVERYONE doing engineering work on these
> products had
> a title that included the word "engineer."
> I never called myself an "engineer" until I worked at Borland. When I
> started making a living as a programmer (1989), I called myself a
> "programmer." At Borland, we were all "engineers." My title was "QA
> engineer." Same thing at Intel.
> The computer industry has a long history of significant engineering
> accomplishments being done by "engineers" that would not fit your
> notion of
> "engineer."
> Did you know that Steve Wozniak went to UC Berkeley for a computer
> science
> degree? But that was after Apple. Virtually all of the important
> computer
> engineering work he did was before he graduated from UC. BTW, he used
> the
> name "Rocky Clark" at Cal. Almost no one knew who he was. I happened
> to
> know his [former] father-in-law, Johnson Clark (Wozniak's assumed last
> name
> was from his former wife Candy Clark).
> IMHO, the most important attributes of "engineers" have to do with
> inventiveness and imagination.
> Alan D.

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Received on Thu Nov 30 23:17:12 2006

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