What's In a Name?

December 07, 2001

JackGanssle-December 07, 2001

What's In a Name?
Sixty-six percent of responders picked "engineer" as their job title on last week's embedded.com poll on job titles. My experience is similar: better than half the developers I talk to earned BSEEs (or very similar degrees) in college.

Yet, can you integrate tan(ax)? What does the "del" operator do? What is the IUPAC name for propane?

All EE students spend an inordinate amount of time learning arcane math, chemistry and the like. But I bet most of us -- including me -- can't answer the three questions I posed. Despite two semesters of electromagnetics, three of physics, and uncounted credits in math, when a professor friend recently showed me what he termed "a beautifully simple and elegant formulation of general relativity," well, the beauty totally escaped me. Though the equation was very short and looked quite simple, the del operator left me utterly baffled. A dim memory of it surfaced, but it was unattached to any meaning.

So was there value to all that education? Many people will no doubt rally to the BSEE cause, claiming that at the very least we know how to find the answers we need. True. Others will say that a broad education gives us an important foundation in learning. Also true, though I worry that though "broad" might be a beguiling term, it's sophism, considering how the typical EE curriculum is utterly devoid of philology.

One reader wrote: "I just wish that the title 'engineer' be more guarded. There are many 'engineers' out there who have never had to go through the hardship and long study hours of an engineering degree. I believe that the title 'engineer' should not be used by anyone who does not have an engineering degree. This in no way belittles the excellent people who do great jobs and even outdo some engineers, yet have no engineering degree. Maybe we should come up with different titles to represent all possibilities."

Perhaps. I've heard this same argument for the more than 25 years I've been an engineer. But who cares how hard we studied? What does the degree really mean in terms of doing our jobs?

Let's compare our profession to, say, medical doctors. MDs are licensed. Legislation dictates who may practice as a doctor, and it mandates specific degrees. Specialists must take difficult and comprehensive board exams after completing their schooling and after time spent as an apprentice (intern and resident).

In the embedded world, no law dictates our use of titles or our ability to practice our art. Some engineers, for example those building structures, need licensure (Professional Engineers). That's mostly outside of the electronics world, despite the fact that we're now building systems every bit as dangerous as a bridge or large building.

I wager that in the next decade there will be terrible accidents stemming from flaws in the designs of embedded systems. Then the public/government will demand "action," no doubt in the form of PE-like licensure. This solution will not be enough to solve the problems of making reliable complex products. But regulation will be seen as a solution.

The reality is that even then most of us will be continue to practice without the PE certification. In civil engineering one Professional Engineer usually supervises many engineers who have not passed the exam. So we'll still be left with the old question: "who can or should use the title 'engineer'."

I've long believed that if you do the work, you should get the pay and the title -- equal rights for everyone. The day of the degree-less engineer is dying, though, as HR departments use a checklist of requirements -- real and artificial -- to filter applicants. That's a shame. Some of the most creative developers I've known grew from the ranks of electronics technicians.

In the same survey 18% indicated they have the title "programmer". If "engineer" is so problematic, what is a programmer?

Just a year or two ago in the boom days that will surely return, if you could spell "C" you had a job. Should the "programmer" title be limited to someone with a CS degree?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

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Reader Feedback

May I take up your point on who may or may not use the title engineer. As you pointed, out with regards to other professions, legislation requires that professionals are licensed to practise. The IEE have proposed this and I for one am all for it. How can the likes of accountants and CEO's really comprehend the worth of a professional engineer when we allow the name to be applied to anyone who wishes to use it. It's no wonder that some of us in the profession don't get the recognition or pay we deserve.Even the unions don't seem to know the difference between an engineer and a technician if you care to read some of their publications.

There is one point however that the IEEE and IEE should be aware of. That is they propose that only chartered engineers be allowed to be registered i.e. those with CEng after there name OK if you want to be chartered but what about incorporated engineers i.e. those that actually do the design / implementation.

David Cook
Senior Development Engineer
Domino Print Resarch UK


The title you seek is the title you mention in your article, Professional Engineer. It is illegal to practice engineering or carry the title of engineer, outside the walls of a corporation, in the state of Ohio, without a license, though this law is rarely enforced for those engineers not directly and visibly involved with the public's safety.

I believe our profession needs and requires the same protections as those of doctors and lawyers offered by licensure. If I tell someone who has a headache to take two aspirin and call me in the morning, am I a doctor? Neither then, is the individual who succeeds in the simpler tasks of engineering without the aptitude demonstrated by degree or certification on which to base that success, can they call themselves an engineer.

I wholly support the legitimization of our profession through required licensing.

Michael S. Schaffner, P.E.
Senior Design Engineer
Accelent Systems, Inc.


I think the title "engineer" should be reserved for people capable of designing something, or at least capable of doing genuine engineering work. It seems to me in the last 30 years or so that the hierarchy of titles has slipped a notch. What used to be called an assembler is now called a "technician" and what used to be called a technician is now called an "engineer." Anyone capable of original, white-sheet design, as was expected 40 years ago of any engineer, is now called "Staff Scientist" or some other similarly revered title, since such individuals are so hard to come by these days.

At one point in my career I worked for a relatively large company that had about 70 electrical engineers in various departments working in various capacities. I would say there were about only two who were actually capable of original design work. The rest were either "working on" designs that ultimately originated from these two individuals, or were involved in various administrative tasks! Sure, many of these "engineers" were working on highly technical tasks, evaluating and optimizing a design for example. But give them the figurative white sheet of paper and tell them to design something, and they would either throw up their hands or come up with something that was very weak or even complete nonsense.

It seems, ever since the start of the Silicon Valley boom of the early 70s, titles have been issued to appease rather than being strictly based on capability; hence the titles themselves have been degraded.

Notice, however, that nothing I have said here bears any relation to academic credentials. That's because academic credentials have little bearing on a person's capabilities, in my experience! I believe a title should be based on a person's actual capabilities, not what courses he's taken! How do you determine a person's capabilities? By demonstration of results. What the individual has accomplished is a pretty good indicator of what the individual is capable of accomplishing, eh? Such would form a fairly reliable basis for title designation, I should think.

Brad Peeters
President
Theta Engineering


I really don't think a degree should be the only thing an employer looks at. They should consider the persons interest in the position he/she is applying for. I'm only 22 years of age and a college drop out.

I have yet to finish school due to a stupid reason. The reason is, I would like an answer as to what does a degree signify with my career choice? Before I started going to school I was so into learning more and more about programming and what not. When I got into school the passion stopped. All I felt was that school is wasting my time. It didn't make sense and it still doesn't. Why am I motivated outside of school but not in school? Currently I am teaching myself about parallel computing and multi-threaded programming.

I had a friend that worked at IBM who was a Unix admin. The funny thing is, I can work wonders around him with Unix, but I couldn't get the job if my life depended on it.

I just think companies should take a different approach when hiring people for specialized positions.

Scott Foster


In Quebec, the term engineer is very strictly reserved. To avoid problems with the law, one can use the title engineer only if he passes the exam, is member of the OIQ (Order des Ingenieurs du Quebec), has been supervised for 2 years, has passed another exam, and more things. One can lose his right to use the title Engineer for many reasons. Recently, the OIQ had an agreement with Microsoft. Now there will be no more MCSE in Quebec.

Sebastien Binet
Ingenieur
SR Telecom inc.

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