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Are Programmers Engineers?

Last week at O’Reilly’s Software Architecture Conference Glenn Vanderburg from LivingSocial referenced (anonymously) something I tweeted a few months back about software engineering. It’s a very good presentation and I think Glenn makes a very strong argument that programming is engineering. Go ahead and watch it. My tweet comes in early around 1:07

I can remember when I made that tweet and I was thinking less about if programming itself was engineering and more about if programmers were engineers. My father was an architect who designed prisons, schools and shopping malls (ok, all prisons). My father-in-law is a mechanical engineer who worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers on top secret projects like the stealth bomber. So I am loath to call myself an architect or an engineer in their presence.

As my father once said when I told him I was considering taking a job as a software architect: “pssh, you’re not an architect until you prove to the state that your work isn’t going to kill someone”

That’s an important point. Architects and engineers (at least structural, mechanical and civil) are required to go through a rigorous education, licensing and accreditation systems. They are legally liable for their work and they are keenly aware that they have the public’s lives in their hands.

In software development you can take a 3 week Node.js bootcamp from a 22 year old and get a job writing financial systems.

If programming is engineering. How do we get programmers to act like engineers (i.e. professionals)?

There is an almost unlimited demand for programmers that need to write everything from missile guidance systems to cheap Candy Crush knock-offs and we seem to have almost no control at all over how these developers are educated. The universities don’t teach the art of programming. Most employers don’t either. I love the craftsman movement but so far it only exists in it’s own little alternate reality bubble.

It occurred to me while watching Glenn that the attitude I (and many others) have had of deriding programming as engineering serves to feed into the idea that writing crap software is ok. Perhaps if we reorient a little towards calling our practice engineering it would help foster the professionalism many of us long for.