Badges? We aint got no badges. We don't need no badges.
I don't have to show you any stinking badges.
Gold Hat Bandito, Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Few issues are as controversial to software developers as licensing and certification,
and in few areas are the conclusions as inescapable. If you are a software developer who
plans to be in the field for 10 years or more, you will have to confront these issues.
Certification is a voluntary process administered by a professional society. The intent
of certification is to give the public a way of knowing who is qualified to perform
specific kinds of work. Certification requirements usually include both education and
experience. In most cases, a written examination is used to determine the competency of
the individual seeking certification. Certification usually extends beyond a limited
geographic area to national or international regions. The best known example of
professional certification in the United States is certified public accountant.
Some organizations have offered certification for software workers for many years. The
Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals offers Associate Computing
Professional and Certified Computing Professional designations. The American Society for
Quality Control offers a Software Quality Engineer designation (although the
organizations usage of the term "engineer" may expose it to legal problems
because the term is regulated by most states and throughout Canada). At this time, there
is no universally accepted certification program for software engineers.
Many companies offer certification programs related to specific technologies. Microsoft
offers a "Microsoft Certified Professional" designation. Novell offers a
"Certified Network Engineer," Oracle offers an "Oracle Certified
Professional," and Apple Computer offers an "Apple Certified Server
Engineer" designation. The focus of this kind of certification is limited to a single
companys products, which makes it narrower than true software engineering
certification would be.
Software is mysterious and complex enough that non-software practitioners need help in
selecting qualified technical personnel. Certification offers employers and customers a
way to recognize software personnel who have achieved at least some minimum level of
qualifications. The market is already supporting this. At the time I write this book,
Amazon.com lists 25 categories of books on various kinds of software-related and
computer-related certification exams. Nearly all these exams are related to specific
technologies. A widely recognized, broader software engineering certification program
would be a useful addition to the field.
Licensing is a mandatory, legal process that is intended to protect the public.
Licensing is typically administered by jurisdictions (states, provinces, and territories).
For many professions, national organizations advise the jurisdictions on appropriate
licensing requirements and exam contents.
Most professions are licensed, including doctors, architects, lawyers, and engineers.
No occupation that affects the public as much as software does remains unlicensed. The
following list gives examples of occupations that require licenses in the State of
- Alarm company operator
- Amateur boxer
- Certified public accountant
- Custom upholsterer
- Family counselor
- Funeral director
- Guide dog instructor
- Hearing aid dispenser
- Mule jockey
- Pest control operator
- Physicians assistant
- Private investigator
- Professional engineer
- Real estate appraiser
- Retail furniture dealer
In engineering the majority of engineers do not obtain licenses. Engineering
companies are required to employ some licensed engineers, but not all of their engineers
have to be licensed. Almost half of civil engineers are licensed, whereas only 8 percent
of chemical engineers are licensed. The difference lies in how replicable the engineered
artifact is and how much impact the item has on public safety. Artifacts that are
replicated in large numbers can be tested before they are manufactured and sold to the
public; this testing generally minimizes the risk to the public and reduces the number of
licensed engineers needed for a particular kind of work.
Civil engineers design many one-of-a-kind, safety-critical artifactshighways,
bridges, baseball stadiums, airport runways, and so on. Electrical engineers design
artifacts that are reproduced in large quantitiestoasters, televisions, telephones,
and so on. So, as Table 10-1 shows, more civil engineers than electrical engineers are
Table 10-1. Percentage of Licensed Engineering
Graduates in the United States as of 1996
Where would software engineers fit into this table? We produce many one-of-a-kind
artifacts, but we also produce operating systems, tax preparation software, word
processors, and other programs that are replicated by the millions. We produce some
safety-critical systems, but many more business systems that have less significant impacts
on the public safety. On balance, perhaps 5-10 percent of people currently practicing as
computer programmers will eventually get their badgestheir professional engineer
licenses in software.
The movement to license software developers began to gain momentum in 1998 when the
Texas Board of Professional Engineers adopted software engineering as a distinct
licensable engineering discipline, resulting in a professional engineer, or
"P.E.," designation for professional engineers specializing in software. The ACM
and IEEE-CS are currently working with the Texas Board of Professional Engineers to create
a Principles of Practice Examination that will allow software professional engineers to
obtain their licenses the same way other professional engineers do.
In the meantime, Texas has begun licensing professional software engineers under a
restrictive exam-waiver clause. To obtain a P.E. license before the exam becomes
available, an applicant must have one of the following:
- 16 years of engineering experience
- 12 years of engineering experience and a bachelors degree from an accredited
- 6 years of experience and a Ph.D. in engineering or a related subject from a university
whose undergraduate program is accredited
In addition, each applicant must provide at least nine references, at least five of
which must be from licensed professional engineers (not necessarily software engineers).
The same criteria for waiving the professional engineering exam apply to other
engineering disciplines in Texas.
How many practicing software developers could qualify as professional software
engineers under Texass current licensing procedure? Not very many, and thats
one of the smartest things the state of Texas has done. The natural tendency would be to
make the exam-waiver clause so loose during the bootstrapping phase that most current
practitioners would automatically qualify. The net effect of that would be to degrade the
term "professional software engineer" to mean the same as "run-of-the-mill
programmer." By making its exam-waiver clause restrictive, Texas has maximized the
likelihood that professional software engineers will represent some of the best software
developers in Texas, and it has safeguarded the reputation of the "professional
software engineer" title.
Texas is significant because, along with New York and California, Texas is a bellwether
state. In high school textbooks, for example, Texass approval clears the way for
about 40 other states to approve a textbook automatically. Other states are watching
Texass software licensing actions carefully. Where Texas goes, others will follow.
After I wrote the first draft of this chapter and while I was awaiting comments from my
peer reviewers, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British
Columbia (APEGBC) began registering software professional engineers (P. Eng.) in British
Columbia. Like Texass program, APEGBCs program contains a bootstrapping
provision that allows software developers with the appropriate combination of education
and experience to obtain their professional engineering licenses.
One of the consequences of being a professional engineer is that you can be held
personally liable for the work your company performs under your signature. Courts in the
United States have held that only members of a profession can be found guilty of
malpractice. Doctors, lawyers, and architects can be guilty of malpractice. Garbage truck
drivers, short order cooks, and computer programmers cannot be guilty of malpractice
because, legally, they arent considered to be professionals. By establishing
software engineering as a profession, we are paving the way for the courts to find that
software engineers can be held liable for malpractice just like other professionals. On
the other hand, following commonly accepted engineering practices can be a defense in a
Many programmers will choose not to become professional engineers. Some wont be
interested in the studying required to pass the P.E. exam. Some will think that, since a
P.E. designation doesnt guarantee an increase in salary, the reward doesnt
justify the effort. Others will choose to avoid the possibility of personal liability.
The disadvantages of becoming a professional engineer might appear to outweigh the
benefits, but inducements to become a professional engineer will come both from the
government and software organizations. No individual engineer will be required to be
licensed, but some companies will be. The specific kinds of companies that will be
licensed is an open question and will depend on the political climate during the next few
years and on the extent to which software-related problems catch the publics
attention. The companies most likely to be required to employ professional engineers
- Companies that sell software engineering services to the public
- Companies that perform software work for public agencies
- Companies that produce safety-critical software
Other companies may voluntarily employ professional engineers to take advantage of the
marketing cachet of hiring workers with the best available credentials or because they see
hiring professional engineers as a way to strengthen their technical talent pool. (Hiring
software engineers who have obtained certification but not professional engineering status
might serve these companies interests as well.)
Professional engineers in these companies will review software engineering work and
sign off on the software their companies deliver. To those companies, employing
professional engineers will be a legal necessity, and, in the early days of licensing when
professional engineers are in short supply, software companies will reward professional
engineers accordingly. If software companies follow other engineering disciplines, the
company that hires a professional engineer will pay for the professional engineers
liability insurance as part of the employment package, which will minimize that
disadvantage of getting your professional engineering license.
Professional engineers will gain other benefits. The professional engineers who put
their signature and reputation on the line for their companies will have final say over
methodology choices, design approaches, and other decisions that affect the quality of the
software for which they might be held liable. Without professional standing, your boss can
come to you and demand that you commit to unrealistic schedule, make short-sighted design
compromises, or sacrifice quality in order to get the software out the door. As Fred
Brooks pointed out a quarter century ago, its difficult to make a vigorous,
job-risking defense of something that has no quantitative foundation and is certified
chiefly by your hunches. A well-defined professionconsisting of education, a code of
ethics, and licensingwill give you a stronger foundation than mere hunches. You will
be able to say, "The standards of my profession dont allow me to shortchange
quality in this situation. I could lose my license." You will have a professional and
legal basis for standing up to unenlightened managers, marketers, and customersa
basis that is sorely lacking today.
People who choose not to become professional engineers will encounter a glass ceiling
that prevents them from rising to the top of the technical ranks in companies that employ
professional engineers. Above a certain technical level, companies will be disinclined to
promote software developers who cant sign off on a software release. Achievement of
professional engineering status also says a person is serious about his or her profession.
That demonstrated commitment to the software field may improve promotion prospects too.
At the organizational level, we may see an interplay between an organizations
SW-CMM rating (discussed in Chapter 7) and the professional engineering license.
Professional engineers will potentially be liable for the software written under their
supervision. Professional engineers wont be able to personally review every line of
code on large projects. Even if the organization pays for professional engineers
liability policy, I think that professional engineers will generally want to work for
organizations in which they receive the most technical and process supportin other
words, organizations that have the most sophisticated software organizational
infrastructure. I predict that well see a concentration of professional engineers in
organizations that have achieved higher SW-CMM levels. This will reinforce the phenomenon
that Harlan Mills observed 20 years ago: good developers tend to cluster in effective
organizations and bad developers in ineffective organizations.
For the rest of this chapter, see the book,
After the Gold Rush.
This material is (c) 1999 by Steven C. McConnell. All Rights