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The Movement to License Software Engineers

More than 60% of IEEE Computer Society members supported a professional engineering exam for software engineers. ~ 2008 IEEE Survey

In recent years, the definition of engineering has broadened to include design of intangible structures as well as tangible ones. At issue is computer software. Computer programs may be nonphysical, but they are often embedded in machines that are tangible – and where proper functioning is crucial to safety.

There has been discussion of licensing software developers since the 1990’s, and indeed Texas has been issuing licenses for more than a decade. Only in recent years, though, has there been progress on a national level.

Recent Developments

In 2008, the IEEE Computer Society, in cooperation with several other organizations, sent out a survey to its U.S. membership. The organization found that more than 60% supported the development of a professional engineering exam for software engineers. Soon after, the Software Engineering Licensure Consortium took steps to make the licensing exam a reality. The organization contacted a number of state boards; ten responded by writing letters of support to request development of the examination.

Development is underway. The exam should be in effect some time in 2013, according to a 2011 article published in Today’s Engineer. Who will need to take the exam and pursue licensing? It’s partly a matter of geographic location – at least in the short term. The ten states that requested the exam are New Mexico, New York, Michigan, Missouri, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas. The likely reality, though, is that other states will follow suit.

Who Will Need Licensing?

This doesn’t mean that all software engineers will be subject to licensing. By definition, licensing is required for those whose work impacts safety, health, or welfare. Each state will be responsible for coming up with its own guidelines. Software engineers tend to agree that mandates will have the most impact on those who develop embedded software systems.

There will probably also be instances where non-embedded software would be considered to pose a significant health or welfare risk. Mitchell Thornton and Phillip Laplante, both PhD level Professional Engineers, break down some possible scenarios in Today’s Engineer. It wouldn’t be enough, they contend, that the software collected or software stored financial information or other sensitive information only be regulated by requiring a software engineer with a license. Many of our daily activities do put our personal information at some small risk, but usually there’s some institution standing behind the operations and righting situations when something goes wrong. In situations where the risk went beyond that encountered in normal business interactions – and where the potential damage was too great – the public welfare would be at risk. This would also be the case if HIPPA or other laws designed to protect the public were at stake.

Not all software engineers will be subject to licensing.

Even in situations where there is a risk to the public, not everyone who works on a project is required to be licensed. Some personnel work under the supervision of licensed engineers. These engineers have the ultimate responsibility for making sure that everything is done correctly. Their credentialing allows them to take positions with greater responsibility and greater compensation.

Licensing Requirements

How does one prepare for a future where software engineering is a licensed profession? The path to licensure begins with the right education. While states do set their own engineering guidelines, they generally follow the standards set by the National Society of Professional Engineers. Engineers typically must graduate from a program that is ABET-accredited (or very similar) and then pass a series of exams. Professional references may be required. Some states do allow a person to become licensed as an engineer after a certain number of years in the profession, even if they don’t have the requisite education.

Even when a person does graduate from an ABET accredited software engineering program, it takes experience to have full licensing as an engineer. Those who pass the fundamentals exam, though, can be designated engineers-in-training (EIs or EITs).

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