David Vedvick


What is Software Engineering and are we Software Engineers?

In our day jobs, we often call ourselves many things (or our HR departments call us these terms for us):

  • Software Developer
  • Programmer
  • Software Designer
  • Software Engineer
  • Technologist (what does this even mean?)

I think most of us prefer the term "Software Engineer" at the end of the day; it tends to properly transmit the problem-solving needs, due diligence, and rigor required in our job, even if we don't apply those three traits all the time. We even may work with people ensuring the validity (and thus quality) of our software, who hold the title of "Software Quality Engineer".

But what really defines a Software Engineer? It's not enough to just have a title that gives a good feeling of the difficulties our job entails - is it? Well this question is answered easily enough - a Software Engineer is someone who practices Software Engineering!

But then the next practical question becomes... what is Software Engineering? Wikipedia gives Software Engineering five possible definitions, which I'll repeat here for convenience:

  • "research, design, develop, and test operating systems-level software, compilers, and network distribution software for medical, industrial, military, communications, aerospace, business, scientific, and general computing applications."

  • "the systematic application of scientific and technological knowledge, methods, and experience to the design, implementation, testing, and documentation of software";

  • "the application of a systematic, disciplined, quantifiable approach to the development, operation, and maintenance of software";

  • "an engineering discipline that is concerned with all aspects of software production";

  • "the establishment and use of sound engineering principles in order to economically obtain software that is reliable and works efficiently on real machines."

Ok, so many of these definitions look somewhat flimsy on the face of it; perhaps for proper definition, one should look at what gave birth to other engineering disciplines.

The Birth of an Engineering Discipline

Mary Shaw from Carnegie Mellon University in a keynote address at the International Conference on Software Engineering, determined that an engineering discipline emerges following these rough steps:

From craft practice to engineering discipline A diagram detailing the process a craft practice goes through to become an engineering discipline

  1. People begin using a new discovery or tool to solve some problems in simpler, newer, faster ways; this is the emergence of a craft practice around this discovery - say the *"The emerging field of "* - or The emerging field of Computer Science in the late 1950s through the 1980s.
  2. Some of these people start businesses with their new, disruptive products, others are hired to disrupt existing businesses
  3. The businesses begin running into problems with the new products, eventually practitioners of the craft in the field cannot solve problems of ever increasing complexity alone, spurring the need for research into how solve these problems
  4. Scientists develop new practices and methodologies, make new discoveries in the field to solve problems; in order to properly disseminate these findings, the scientists use all tools available: documentation, training, etc.
  5. The findings of these discoveries eventually coalesce into a discipline; finally we have engineering!

Software development is far along the path of becoming an engineering practice; people use the computer sciences to solve common problems in business, government, and medical fields. As problems are found with current patterns and practices, subsequent solutions are found, and disbursed through many avenues (a common one in our field is Stack Overflow!).

Some tools and processes seem to introduce sea-changes in producing reliable code. The SOLID approach to object-oriented software design was one. From this, a whole literature has stemmed to produce consistently SOLID software designs. Peer review and test-driven development also seem like step-wise improvements in producing reliable software (by stressing as many variations of state that take place in a finite state machine as possible at time of development, a developer takes the step of not only ensuring correct operation of the code at the time of development, but also correct forward operation of the code in the future).

However, we aren't quite at the point where the science and tooling and practice sides of the equation have caught up to produce highly reliable code and solve novel problems at a high frequency.

If Building Software is not yet an Engineering Practice, are we Engineers?

Now comes the chicken and egg question: does an engineering practice make an engineer, or does an engineer make an engineering practice?

Instead of using the above process that Mary Shaw went through to define an engineering practice, let's look at what defines an engineer. From there we can maybe answer the question of what an engineer is without answering the question of what an engineering practice is.

Let's think of the situation of an electrical engineer and a certified electrician: both are capable of designing operating electrical circuits. Both are knowledgeable in the real-world limits and dangers of electrical equipment and components. An electrician can likely solder components onto a board just as quickly and deftly as an electrical engineer. In other words, they're both capable of understanding and applying circuit theory.

Where do they differ? What makes an electrical engineer's degree and certification harder to achieve? What do electrical engineers bring to the table that electricians do not? Perhaps the engineer solves novel electrical problems, but I think that an electrician is also capable of that when working within his own knowledge and what he has learned beyond that. Perhaps the engineer is tasked with staying at the forefront of his field, but a good electrician should also stay current with the field (and may be required to as well by government).

It seems more correct to say that electrical engineers (are supposed to) have the ability to contribute back to the fields of electrical engineering when a novel problem requires a novel solution outside of the bounds of the existing body of knowledge of the electrical engineering field. So maybe it is sufficient to say that an Engineer has enough mastery of the field they work in that they can contribute back to their field with novel solutions from outside of the discipline as it exists in that moment.

So are software engineers, you know, engineers? In most engineering disciplines, proper testing and certification is required by state and national boards in order to properly claim that one is an engineer. This type of certification does not exist yet. IEEE offered a Certified Software Development Professional program at one time, but that was discontinued in 2014. Instead, they now offer certifications in multiple areas of software development, with the reasoning seeming to be that software development covers too broad of a spectrum of software creation at the moment to be grouped into one certification.

So at present, it doesn't seem that there are any widely recognized certifications that provide a definitive "software engineer" title. However, that doesn't mean that there are not many of us today who are in effect practicing the same disciplines as other engineers; it just may be that there is not yet enough agreed upon material for there to be a known, written determination of what makes the software engineering discipline.

So what?

I do predict that one day - perhaps 1500 years from now, but hopefully not that long - the title of Software Engineer will be a professional distinction that will require full testing and certification. At the end of the day, does any of this matter? If the rest of the industry is following the title of "Software Engineer", then there doesn't seem to be any good reason to be apprehensive to the usage of the title of Software Engineer. However, I think after taking all of the above into account, we should feel encouraged and motivated to continue growing our practice, and contributing as much as we can to the development of software engineering as a discipline!

Note posted on Thursday, May 19, 2016 12:31 AM CDT - link