To be an engineer -

To be an engineer


About 60% of the firmware developers I talk to are EEs. Computer science and computer engineering majors make up most of the rest, with a smattering of physics and even liberal arts majors tossed in to fill out the balance.

A recent poll on this site shows that some 66% of us refer to ourselves as engineers of one sort or another. But if you live in Texas and call yourself an engineer you may be breaking the law.

A Houston Chronicle article indicates that a law there limits the use of “engineer” to those people who are registered Professional Engineers (PE). That requires passing a really tough exam which tests all of the knowledge acquired in college. Can't zip through a circular integral or pop out Maxwell's equations? You're hosed.

Currently non-PEs in Texas who use the word “engineer” in their titles risk a $3,000-a-day fine. Thank god I live in Maryland, otherwise I'd be out $3000 * 365 days/yr * 30 years, or some $33 million.

The Texas Society of Professional Engineers is protesting a sunset law that would largely rescind these restrictions. They want to limit “engineer” to degreed people with the PE certification.

These folks are confused. Legislate actions, not titles. Laws already exist that require licensed engineers to sign off on drawings made for large buildings, bridges, tunnels and other potentially dangerous structures of the civil engineering profession.

PEs worry that the public will be confused by the use of the title “engineer” by an uncertified individual. Yeah, right. “Engineer” to the average Joe means someone who drives a train.

The dictionary defines an engineer as “one who is trained or professionally engaged in a branch of engineering”. In other words, walk the walk and you're an engineer.

A doctor, on the other hand, is “a person, especially a physician, dentist, or veterinarian, trained in the healing arts and licensed to practice ” (italics mine). By definition, docs, who treat people, who prescribe potentially life-threatening drugs, and who cut into a person's body, must be licensed. Actions are important, not titles.

Virtually anyone can call themselves a “doctor.” Kiss sang of the “Doctor of Love.” Doctor John the Night Tripper infringed no rights and caused no harm. Doctor Demento may have been a purveyor of bad taste, but that's hardly actionable. Did the State come after these folks for misrepresentation? (Drug busts not relevant for this discussion).

I bet most of the engineers in Texas are in the electronics industry, designing embedded systems, chips, and Dell computers. If PEs are really concerned about public perception, they have nothing to fear; no one knows what these people do, anyway. If they're worried about public safety, it makes more sense to regulate work products. Maybe a licensed PE should sign off on a switching power supply, as a failure there can cause a fire. Of course, an independent certification — like UL — makes even more sense.

Or maybe the market is a better arbiter of these potential threats. Lawsuits blossom from every real or imagined injury. Like them or not, these suits do lead to more caution — perhaps sometimes excessive caution — in product design.

Ninety-eight percent of us, on an earlier poll indicated that in the embedded world a degree is not at all important or, at best, only somewhat important. Exactly zero percent felt the degree was very important or a basic requirement. Respondents were practicing, uh, engineers (this isn't Texas so I can say that), people doing the work, folks who know what's necessary.

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 . His website is .

Reader Feedback

I enjoyed your article regarding Professional Engineers and our profession. We may well want to consider agreeing with the Texas Legislature regarding the use of the title.

First, to set the record straight, I am a licensed Professional Engineer. I have always worked in industry and have never had to sign off on a design in a professional capacity.

I work with many people: some licensed, some well educated/trained/competent, and some who have been given the title who (in my opinion) should not have been.

We should think hard about the purpose of licensing: it is to protect the public. In the case of an organiziation which is building for example a hydroelectric dam, suspension bridge or an electric powerplant the risk to the public is clear. However there are many cases where there are comparable risk which do not (I believe) require that a professional engineer review the design and be willing to place his reputation, livelihood and perhaps even his finances on the line saying “This design is safe.”

We have more and more products which incorporate embedded systems: what would happen if that system has a flaw? If it is a toaster, then no big deal: the toast gets over/under done or in the absolute worst case one house burns down. But what if we are building a piece of medical equipment? In at least one such as the case some patients were exposed to excessive radiation during cancer treatment due to a software system failure. Could something similar happen with the design your company or mine is working on?

I know that a typical response is “The industry is self policing: any company which builds such a product will go out of business.” I'm not so sure we want to let it go at that. We just had some of the largest bankruptcies ever due to financial manipulation of book (Enron and others) . Many shareholders and retirees have been wiped out. In some of the cases the officer's of the companies are going to get away scott free. So what is the dis-incentive here for management? Why should not the management cut corners and hire any warm body and call him/her an engineer: the rewards are high and the possibility of getting burned low. In the worst case the company is gone, but the people responsible could even start a new company and do the same thing over again.

Perhaps we should instead insist that the people involved (management, engineers and even line workers) take responsibility for their actions. And perhaps we should ensure that as an industry we make sure that those who practice engineering are competent before we find that the State steps in and requires lincensure.

Mark R Walter
Professional Engineer
Aerospace Industry

The law in Texas was written in the late 1930's and does include an exemption for engineers in the telecommunications industry which was the only real hi-tech line of engineering at the time of the laws writing. I've glanced over the new legislation and it is long over due and basicly in general terms states that people may use “engineer” in their title, so long as they do not use ” Licensed Professional Engineer” without passing the boards. Texas probably needs a constitutional amendment to have the legislature be allowed to be in session each year rather than every other year, so that the laws can be brought up to date in many areas, but it does keep taxes a bit lower as they don't have as much time to come up with ways to spend the tax payers money, and have to focus on the basics during the limited time they are in session.

The engineering board in no way what so ever wants to come up with a test for the software weenies, so my guess is that software engineer will soon become a valid title in Texas, after the legislature passes the new bill, loosening up the restrictions.

Those of us in the telecommunications industry can slide by with our exemption until then, and not worry about getting busted for tossing the buisiness card in the fish bowl at lunch.

The law in Texas also states that you may use the term engineer if you have a bachelors degree in engineering, and 10 years experience in the field, and if you have 5 people that can vouch for your work — you can claim exemption on the PE exam and obtain liscensure through your experience and references.

— probably more meaningful in many ways —

Bill Murray
Baseband Engineer
Nokia Mobile Phones


“To be an Engineer”: we have a similar problem in Ontario.

See see “Enforcement” on left. First they claim its an offence to call your self a professional engineer without being certified, later on they say calling yourself an engineer is already an offence.

I think we should all move towards calling those who meet any specific certification requirements just that, i.e. Provincial or State Certified Professionals.

Either way, I am paid to do what I studied: EE. That makes me a professional engineer doesn't it? Or at least an engineer?

By the way, do you know the riddle about a brakeman, a fireman and an engineer on the train from Chicago to New York?


Aryan Sad
ICEFYRE Semiconductor Inc.

Right on, Jack. Rather than the system prevailing in 49 states and theouter space colony of Texas, where all, um, engineering practitioners mustbe registered except the 98% who slide by through an industrial exemption,we need the laws reworded to acknowledge that no engineer needs a licenseexcept the 2% for whom it actually makes sense. The legal fiction of auniversal registration requirement and all the attendant silliness thatcomes with it is a farce, and does the public no good.

Orin Laney
Kaiser Electronics Div. Rockwell Collins

I have just read your article, and have some comments.

I would think that using the title “engineer” in states other than Texas would also be illegal. I don't live in the USA, so don't know the applicable laws. However, this is certainly the case in every province in Canada.

The law does not state that degreed persons cannot work on embedded systems. The law states that degreed persons who are not registered as professional engineers cannot describe themselves as engineers. This is to protect the public. Professional engineers are bound by a code of ethics and have many legal responsibilities to the general public. The public has legal recourse should a professional engineer screw up. They have no protection should Joe Soap screw up. Becoming a professional engineer involves years of mentoring by experienced mentors above and beyond obtaining an engineering degree. It is this process that the general public has to learn to trust, as they have in the medical profession. The countless failed software projects and lack of engineering discipline has led to the poor perception that the public has of the software industry.

Instead of deriding the state of Texas's attempt to rectify the situation, you should rather be promoting them.


Derek Jones,
P. Eng.
Interalia Inc.

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