On getting respect

December 11, 2003

JackGanssle-December 11, 2003

In a recent commentary about engineers as professionals, Embedded Systems Programming Editor-in-chief Michael Barr asks why doctors, lawyers and accountants are considered professionals, yet engineers seemingly cannot attain that same status. He pithily says "Like doctors, electrical engineers attempt to debug complex systems and proscribe solutions and workarounds that may or may not work. Like lawyers, we're masters of arcane languages and skilled in making stuff work even in the face of seemingly bad precedents. And like accountants, we sit in our cubicles and crunch numbers — and thus make someone else's life easier."

With a BS we're at least as highly educated as accountants; get a Masters and you're on an educational par with any lawyer.

So why don't most folks list engineers as professionals?

My theory is multi-faceted. First, no one understands what we do. I betcha most folks can't even accurately define the word "engineer".

Dictionary.com defines it thus:

  1. One who is trained or professionally engaged in a branch of engineering.
  2. One who operates an engine.
  3. One who skillfully or shrewdly manages an enterprise.
The first tells me nothing, though ironically uses the "professional" word. The second explains why my neighbors think I drive a train. And the third has nothing at all to do with engineering.

My definition is: "an engineer is one who uses technology to solve problems." It's broader than "one who designs things" because many of us create processes that aid in product development. It's inclusive enough to encompass Dictionary.com's third definition.

The second problem is that there's still a strong cachet of nerd associated with our work. Though many of us embrace words like "nerd" and "geek," the great majority of non-techies see these as derogatory descriptions. In a sense we're still the target of the schoolyard bullies who are intimidated by three digit IQs.

Third, accountants, doctors and lawyers have created regulated industries that erect strong barriers to entry and even quotas limiting university admissions. Without the Bar and Medical associations the status of these professions would be seriously diminished.

With a few exceptions engineers have never effectively banded together to regulate our profession. Most of us are too independent and too steeped in a culture that praises us as individual artistes to join a union or other collective organization which would, say, limit college admissions as the lawyers and doctors do. As a result there are no standards, other than the rarely taken-PE exam, that clearly identify who an engineer is. In the embedded space if you can spell C, you've got a job.

Finally, the engineering zeitgeist is often anti-business (witness Dilbert's pointy-haired boss). We're employees, not partners like members of all recognized professions. We build stuff, not businesses, and work at the will of our supervisor. When promoted to boss most leave the engineering profession behind and become managers, something considered quite different than engineers. Notable exceptions like Dean Kamen of Segway fame are rare.

What do you think? Do we get enough respect? Should the profession of engineering be organized, restricted, controlled or managed in some manner?

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.


While I agree that engineering should be treated as a profession and that the Bar and Medical associations have served their membership admirably - I fear that the damage done is beyond repair. Any attempt to form similar organized, restricted, controlled or managed engineering profession would have to be capable of preventing an 'end run' from overseas engineering resources. I believe that corporate America has WAY too much to lose to permit this to happen.

- Roman Robles, P.E.


Why do you aspire to be revered in the same light as a lawyer, doctor or accountant? Although educated and skilled, I usually view ALL of these 'professionals' with contempt and wouldn't want to be pigeon-holed with the likes of them. I chose my field not to be marveled at or admired but to provide much needed services to society as a whole and fulfill my personal need to contribute. We have always been the unsung heroes - and there's nothing wrong with that. Who was the inventor of the wheel? Who cares! He did his part and moved on. If I wanted notoriety I would have become an actor or a politician.

- Lindsay Stretch


I think alot of lay people lump computer engineer with computer repairman or technician. When I'm on break from college practically everyone I know asks me to look at their computer. And after I fix my parent's computer, my mom (who's paying me for school) says, "Well that's why I'm sending you to college." NOOOOOO. It frustrates me to no end.... Great article.

- Kris Murray


Perhaps when we as a group treat our work product more professionally. Too many late products with gaping bugs that people don't take responsibility for.

A programmer would expect to be paid to work on fixing the bugs he introduced. If your tax accountant put wrong figures in your tax return, would you pay him to fix it after the deadline ? Would he be held accountable ?

When your embedded system goes bezerk and hurts someone, is the engineer held responsible ? Would he face proscecution or jail time or fines ? No - he might get paid extra hours to fix the problem.

I believe there is a difference between an engineer (one who designs and builds something) from a programmer (one who just codes). With discipline, a programmer could be an engineer. Without discipline, an engineer could be a coder.

- Paul Burega


The term profession is defined as "a form of employment, esp one that is possible only for an educated person and after training and that is respected in society as honourable". So engineering is a profession and undoubtedly is an honourable one. However due to lack of awareness among the society, people tend to have misconception on the profession. If we look around us, lotsa devices are developed by engineers - the emergence of internet, computers, wireless devices, household appliances are among vital products that part of our live. Can you imagine if these product are not around! A world in a mess!

- Adam Rizal


This is a - may be rare - case in which my country, Brazil, seems to be ahead of the USA. The engineering profession here is regulated by national laws since over 70 years ago. There are federal and regional councils to regulate the profession, and nobody can be named Engineer without a college degree. There must be an engineer responsible for each and every building, industrial project, etc.

Reading your article it seems that Brazil is kind of an engineers' heaven, comparing it to what you said about the USA, but I don't think so. Here, like everywhere, there's not many people who really understand what an engineer really is.

I think the problem is in the fact that few people ever need the services of an engineer. When you are sick, you look for a doctor. When you want to sue somebody, you've got to find a lawyer. But when do you need an engineer? When you build a house, for sure, but how many houses the average citizen builds in a lifetime?

The engineering knowledge and skills are, by nature, "embedded" into the products. Everyone else is more visible to the people than the engineer. But in my opinion that's not bad. It's a fact of life.

- Alexandre Galindo


Oh yes, by all means, let's organize and regulate engineering, it will give those at the bottom of their graduating class something to do. Look around your cubicle or office, which of your peers do you want to hnad over the future of engineering to? You are too good, too valuable to be wasted on such things, so who will end up running any regulatory board or union? You betcha, those who are not exactly the best engineers. So, go ahead, start your unions, regulate the profession, elevate folks not worthy of carrying your PDA to positions of power, and watch the jobs sail away to India and China. As for me, I know I'm a professional, and if the world doesn't recognize it, what does it matter? If I wanted fame or fortune, I'd be a politician or a performer. I chose engineering for the fun of doing something new, and the thrill of making things work, not to plaster my walls with certificates, degrees, licenses and union cards. What are you in it for?

- Brad Stevens


Maybe a bit too subtle, but I actually disagree with you. I though the third definitions was REALLY more accurate than the other two.. You wrote:

> 3.- One who skillfully or shrewdly manages an enterprise.
>And the third has nothing at all to do with engineering.

I thought, well, maybe it seems so to me because english is not my native language.. Still, I don't believe "enterprise" should be always considered as "company". .. but hey! I decided to look up "enterprise" in the dictionary.. (same old Dictionary.com) here's what comes out (pay close attention to the first definition):

1.- An undertaking, especially one of some scope, complication, and risk.
2.- A business organization.
3.- Industrious, systematic activity, especially when directed toward profit: Private enterprise is basic to capitalism.
4.- Willingness to undertake new ventures; initiative: "Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs" (Henry David Thoreau).

Let's just play some word game... Then engineer means:

One who skillfully or shrewdly manages an undertaking, especially one of some scope, complication, and risk.

Isn't that what we do?

- Rodrigo Flores

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