Beware Common Sense Engineering

I am always torn about the title of “engineer.” When I talk to school kids about engineering, I tell that an engineer is a person who uses science and math to solve or analyze practical problems. However, these days you hear a lot of engineering titles thrown around to anyone who does any sort of technical (and sometimes non-technical) work. “Software engineers” don’t have to be licensed to practice, while civil engineers do. What’s in a name and does any of this matter?

Are you an Engineer?

The truth is, though, most US states have strict laws about who can call themselves an engineer to the public. This is especially problematic for the hacker who wants to offer services to the public. In 1907 Wyoming started requiring engineers to be licensed and by 1947 all states followed suit.

This isn’t surprising. After all, in the late 1800s, the only thing you needed to be a physician was the willingness to tell people you were a doctor. Eventually, this became such a public nuisance that laws required a certain amount of education and testing. Same for lawyers. You can imagine after a few bridges or building collapsed, that engineering certification started to sound like a good idea.

Bad Days

With computers getting more and more an integral part of everyday life for everyone, you wonder if we aren’t going to see something happen that will require some types of electrical or computer engineering to be certified in some way. Self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles (like drones), and computers that handle large amounts of money are all things that could make normal people take notice when they go bad. It won’t take too many drones crashing into a crowd, self-driving cars killing their drivers, or a computer bug losing a few hundred million dollars before people are going to start asking who is creating these public menaces.

For Example

One of the reasons that building projects require professional engineers is that someone has to be responsible when things go bad. For example, consider the Hyatt Regency walkway disaster in Kansas City. The original plans called for the elevated walkway to be suspended on some threaded steel rods. The builder didn’t want to thread the entire rod (required for the original design) and proposed using two rods in place of each single rod.

Common sense tells you that two rods would be better than one rod, right? Unfortunately, common sense doesn’t always work in science and engineering. For example, common sense tells you a brick will fall faster than a pebble, but common sense is wrong. Turns out, the original design didn’t have enough safety margin, and the new two-rod design actually doubled the stress on the supporting beams. Here’s a good video that demonstrates what happened.

The engineering firm — full of professional engineers, I’m sure — approved the changes over the phone without looking at any drawings or performing any calculations. When 114 people died and 216 people were injured in the worst building collapse until 9/11, that firm and several of their engineers were held responsible.

Just like a driver’s license doesn’t mean you won’t get in a wreck, an engineering license doesn’t mean you will always do the right thing. Besides that, a drivers license doesn’t mean you can drive like [Jason Statham] and an engineering license doesn’t mean you always know what to do in any given circumstance.

What’s a License Worth?

Professional licensure serves at least two purposes. First, it can help to prevent unqualified people from doing bad things.  However, it can also prevent qualified people from doing anything if those qualified people didn’t do things per the status quo. For example, I understand that for many years Texas would refuse to recognize correspondence law schools. Some states allow you to take the bar if you work as an apprentice in a law firm under certain circumstances, but most won’t. Like engineering licensure, this is done by the state in the US, so if you want to practice Federal law (like immigration or bankruptcy) you don’t care about the state regulations.

What I fear is that we will wind up with licensure that doesn’t actually prove the licensee is competent, and also inhibits competent people from contributing to the state of the art. However, I think some form of regulation is almost inevitable, just as we’ve seen the FAA start to take interest in drones. I’ve seen industries stave this off by self-regulation if they do a good job of it, but the reality is that engineers or hackers or programmers or whatever you want to call people who do what we do are way too diverse a bunch to make that very realistic. All it takes is one bad incident. If you think it would be strange to require a license to put up a Web application, remember that in most places hooking up to the electric system or the water mains requires a master electrician or plumber.

What about You?

Do you know the engineering licensing laws where you live? Do they affect you? Or could they? Are they meaningful? Do they allow for competent people to practice regardless of how they became competent? How would you react if certain kinds of projects became regulated?

134 thoughts on “Beware Common Sense Engineering

  1. Do not control the people with laws,
    Nor violence nor espionage,
    But conquer them with inaction.

    The more morals and taboos there are,
    The more cruelty afflicts people;
    The more guns and knives there are,
    The more factions divide people;
    The more arts and skills there are,
    The more change obsoletes people;
    The more laws and taxes there are,
    The more theft corrupts people.

    Yet take no action, and the people nurture each other;
    Make no laws, and the people deal fairly with each other;
    Own no interest, and the people cooperate with each other;
    Express no desire, and the people harmonize with each other.

          1. Well, when the people are done harmonizing with each other it damn well will! Or we’ll nail some unicorns to the wings to make sure it does. Hey, it’s a whole new world we’re after here (certainly not the one we live in), and the people will make it as they wish. As a real famous man once said, ‘make it so.’

    1. Let’s imagine for a moment that you need a brain surgery. Would you have it done by licensed brain surgeon with help of other licensed specialists, who had years and years of training required by law to be even allowed in operating room? Or would you rather put your life in hands of some hobo with hacksaw?

    2. … from “Tao Te Ching”, classical (well, central) Taoist text, presumably by Laozi, probably around 200 BC. Taoism is famous for its observation of utility and usefulness of nothingness and voids and that they tend to be grossly underrated in general.

  2. The title doesn’t match the story, which in turn changes over the course of the read. Are you trying to say to not use common sense in engineering? Are you trying to say that in order to be an engineer, you should have a license? Are you saying that engineers should be held accountable for the things they design?

    I have a BS in electrical engineering, and a BS, MS, and PhD in mechanical engineering. There is nothing I do that would require me to get my PE. You don’t need a PE in order to lay out circuit boards for computers, design an automobile, run a reaction in a chemical plant, or perform a metallurgical experiment. All of these are policed by the companies that have hired these engineers.

    Software is probably the weakest of all of these, because no body is policing developers, who are generally treated as mere code monkeys.

    So yeah, I call myself an engineer. I like you description of what an engineer is, and I don’t think think a license should be required for the things I listed above. Should I be held accountable for the things I design? Absolutely. Everyone should. Period

    1. You do, if you’re the engineer in charge who checks up and puts their name on the papers, and takes responsibility for the design.

      If you’re the equivalent of a code monkey in the company, you don’t need a PE.

      “So yeah, I call myself an engineer.”

      In some (all?) states that’s actually illegal if you’re not licensed – you can’t actually hold a job title with “engineer” in it, except again in software.

      1. Ah, the PE license in the US… in general, if you’re designing or building something suitable for interstate commerce then you don’t have to be a PE or have it stamped by a PE. If it’s not really practical to make in one state and sell it in another (bridges, buildings, HVAC installations) then yes, you need a PE to stamp the design drawings. There are exceptions – work done for government agencies is exempt (though even the Army Corps of Engineers has PEs). Mentioned further down the comment chain is a requirement for PEs to stamp boiler designs – seems like there may be a size limit?

        Anyway, this is why almost all civil engineering students sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and virtually no aerospace engineering students do.

        There was an attempt in New Jersey, late 80s or early 90s, to require PEs to stamp software, but AT&T (a very large employer of programmers in NJ at the time) got that one squashed. I haven’t heard of it in other states.

      2. I work at an automotive OEM as a Mechanical Engineer. My title is Senior Mechanical Engineer, and that’s totally legal to claim in the US. I work on safety-critical designs. I don’t have a PE, nor does pretty much anyone else in my company – you can design, build, and sell a vehicle to essentially any market in the world, and you don’t have to have a PE stamp anywhere on any drawing. However, not having a PE doesn’t mean I’m not liable – if someone was injured/killed because of something I did or didn’t do, you better believe I’d be subpoena’d and potentially held personally liable, depending on the specific situation. Even the people I know that work at my company that are PEs have never used their stamps on anything.

        I’ve also done design work for Electrical and HVAC systems for commercial buildings. I did all the design, calculations, and drawings, and took those drawings to an Electrical and a Mechanical PE to get them checked over and stamped. It really depends on the industry and the country.

      3. The US federal government does not require that their engineers to have a PE. You do have to have an engineering degree from a recognized school to be an engineer for the job title and pay series that goes with it. But no exam or PE certificate required.

        And while there is a bit of a culture class war as with anywhere else, Techs are regarded pretty well and get to work on stuff that would be considered engineer only type of work, if they have the chops – no one is going to stand in their way….

      4. I have worked as a Manufacturing and R&D Engineer (now department manager), and have never even run across a PE in our industry. Nor any of my customers (ie, Medtronics, etc).

        We are adding an addition to our building, and the blueprints that are posted do have a PE stamp.

    2. “You don’t need a PE in order to lay out circuit boards for computers”

      Well that depends entirely on how much engineering you’re doing in your layout. Small signal? No one is likely to care. What about that HV trace next to your small signal? How big is the gap? Is that gap now a design decision? If so in some places in the world you need to be a licensed and registered engineer to make that decision or at least have one sign off on the decision.

      A license should be required but it critically should be setup in a way that it doesn’t exclude capable people from receiving it, and it should have a purpose. Should you be held accountable? Of course! Are you capable of doing the job? No idea. Is your experience what you say it is? Who can tell. What about your references are they real or just some bums you handed your phone to? Again who can tell. The only point of the license should be to take this guess work out of it. A large company can do this background check, a single person, not so much.

  3. I’m curious what brought up this subject for a blog.
    My litmus test for an engineer is someone that has graduated from an ABET certified school.
    I see numerous “engineering certification” programs, some maybe worthwhile, some not. But the only engineering profession that I’m aware of that requires a PE is in civil or architectural engineering. All others rely on internal processes, hiring practices or controls such as CE or ISO900X certification of product and process.
    The Samsung catastrophe is an example of an issue outside of the initial engineering process, probably related to changes caused by manufacturing requirements.

    1. I beg to disagree. ABET does not make one an engineer. I am a Comp Sci Engineer and yes graduated from an ABET cert school. But in my state (Texas) does not require a license to practice my craft. I have worked on big projects in the finance sector (remember the bail out of the banks in ’08-’09?). Are you referring to the exploding batteries in the S7 class devices? Why bring that up? What if I programmed a nuclear power plant or sent the mars polar lander with a bad habits? Oh wait nothing would happen to me because I dont have a license. (BTW the examples of nuclear power plant and mars polar lander did have programmers with bad habits and that is why they were disasters.)

      1. You need to graduate from an ABET certified program to be eligible to sit for the PE. Granted the quality is there for non-ABET programs but any school can claim an engineering program. ABET certification simply means the basics are there.
        As for the S7 mention I thought that may be the reason for this post. Things catching on fire is a common reason for lawsuits. Lawsuits cause companies to look for who to blame it on. Negligence factors in when the people doing the work aren’t qualified (Engineering Law and Contracts).

        1. @RandyKC, I think the point is that most states do not have a formal licensing commision for other engineering disciplines but do for civil and architecture. Just because I am a comp sci major does not mean I will create safe environmentally friendly code that wins nobel prizes. Do I think there should be? Yes, we would not have news of self driving cars killing their passengers. This subject was actually brought up in my first engineering course “introduction to engineering” and we discussed why civil engineers are required to be licensed in most states (if not all) but Comp sci engineers not need be licensed anywhere in the states. We need a better system to hold those accountable for engineering mistakes. But what should that look like? It is a hard debate for sure but needed badly.

          1. in principle i agree, then again i know just how much is done by people who technically aren’t trained or licensed to do that specific job, often without issue and with great benefit, often the alternative is that it wouldn’t get done.

            in essence i think any company, be it a single person or an international powerhouse should be held accountable for any consequences their product or service might have, i don’t however agree that a license would remove or even minimize any errors, plenty of licensed people make stupid mistakes, despite of their training.
            i think a system of accountability through the supply and development chain is much more important than trying to license the individuals doing the work, any issue one might have with unqualified personnel would simply be replaced with issues with the license.

            even something as heavily licensed as maritime engineers shows this issue.

      2. That is not entirely true. In Texas (specifically) you are required to have a license to sell engineering services to the public. You are exempt when working directly for a company.

        A lot of for-hire work gets passed off as ‘design’ though, so not even many ‘design services’ companies in electronics are licensed or have licensed principals. The law (again specifically in Texas) doesn’t do any favors to cleaning up that situation either, because they are very clearly written in a way that conforms to the way civil and structural engineers work and not the way most electronic design engineers work.

        1. yep, and it also states that the Bachelor’s degree be approved by the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. ABET or not, Computer Science Engineers are not required to hold a professional license. Trust me, I built out a major bank merger data center integration in 2009-2010 without a professional license. I could have clicked a couple of onscreen dialogs and kept the country in a recession for many years to come without fear of losing any professional license or being held liable in any way…

  4. Here in the Netherlands every technical university/college graduate gets the Bachelor of Engineering/Science titel and are allowed to call themselves ingenieur. I’m a recent graduate ingenieur and was looking for a job. Most of the ‘engineering’ jobs did not specify the need for a Graduate certificate. It so happens the titel ingenieur is protected. Engineer is not…

    The worst job titel of all is ‘sales engineer’. Someone with some technical knowlegde selling high end gear and is paid minimum wage… Software ingenieur is a valid titel as electronics has lots of software/firmware.

      1. Sales engineers who know what they are doing are very highly respected and appreciated by customers. About 30% of them really know their stuff, and about 10% of them could be doing your job if they weren’t doing theirs. It also tends to pay pretty well if they’re good at it.

    1. In the Netherlands there used to be two different, protected titles for ‘engineer’:
      ir. for when you graduated from a technical research university like Delft, Eindhoven or Enschede, and
      ing. for when you graduated from any applied technical school (Higher Technical School)

      After they merged and diluted the two completely different school systems, the title was diluted as well.

  5. Right now it seems that many product safety concerns in engineering are handled through standards compliance testing — the engineers designing, for example, a laptop power brick (or a new flagship smartphone…) aren’t necessarily licensed, but their designs must meet certain specifications and pass tests at independent labs to verify this — think CE, UL, CSA, etc. More critical products (aviation, medical, automotive) have correspondingly higher standards and testing requirements applied to them. This theoretically mitigates product risk (interference with other products, failure to perform functions, catching on fire, etc.) — but this does introduce a different set of barriers to entry (product testing is expensive!) But, overall this approach is feasible for products where you can make a bunch and test them — the economics of bridges, buildings, and humans are different, thus the licensing for engineers and doctors (so hopefully it’s done right the first time!)

    For software, there’s a host of other questions, as it can be much more difficult to get engineering deficiencies to show themselves. If, say, a capacitor in a power supply design doesn’t have enough voltage headroom, a few accelerated lifecycle tests at voltage limits will probably reveal the deficiency. But software bugs might not show up for a couple years, or only under certain conditions, or only when a memory error occurs in exactly the wrong place, etc.

    This is an interesting read:

  6. I graduated from a top engineering school with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. That degree certificate says very clearly that I am an engineer. I have worked for several companies as an engineer, and they were all more than happy to have this be enough proof for them to call me an engineer and give me an engineering salary. I don’t need to pay for and take yet another test given by some secondary certification program to be able to call myself an engineer.
    Now several disciplines require certification – but not all do and that does not bestow the title of engineer. It enables them to call themselves certified.

    1. It would be interesting to hear what certificate says verbatim? Both my “engineering” degrees say that I have completed all the requirements necessary for my school, so I am receiving a [insert degree level] in [insert discipline] Engineering – not that I am an “Engineer” It’s the Professional Engineering certification that

      But that doesn’t matter anyways. If you go to school for medicine, you are awarded the title of “Doctor of Medicine”, but _you can’t practice medicine yet_. You can work in the field of medicine, you can be a researcher, you can annoyingly insist that everyone call you “Doctor”, you can even interact with patients, but you can’t so much as write a prescription for aspirin without a license. Anything that you want to actually do that could be interpreted as “practicing medicine” is going to have to be signed off by a “real” Doctor (meaning someone who has a license, and who is actually legally responsible for their actions in caring for that patient). So, I don’t care what your degree says – holding a degree does not make you that thing.

      You may be trained in a field that does not require professional licensure, in which case, whatever. But in many places titles such as Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer, or their equivalents are legally protected. It doesn’t matter what you want to call yourself, but if you get caught representing yourself as a professional when you are not actually licensed, you can be in for a world of hurt, courtesy of the local justice system.

      1. in denmark we have licenses for those cases as well but that doesn’t preclude people from calling themselves lawyers, engineers or doctors, we just call it a “licensed civil engineer”, a “licensed lawyer” or “state authorized lawyer” i think we have laws prohibiting people from misleading others in a transaction so if you have absolutely no relevant paperwork that might get you.

        this allows people to be doctors without them being “doctors” in the licensed physician sense.

        1. Oodain, thanks for commenting, and hello from the USA.

          Does this mean the Denmark law allows consumers to chose a “licensed” or “unlicensed” person?

          If yes, I would tend to agree with this approach. I have worked with people with formal education and without, and competent people who cared about relevant qualities and those who weren’t so competent or didn’t care about quality. All four combinations, formally-educated-good, formally-educated-not-so-good, not-formally-educated-good, and not-formally-educated-not-so-good.

          For projects that can impact lots of people, there is a question about credentials, competency, and quality because of the politicians and bureaucrats involved. Consider the EPA polluting a river in Colorado. Anyone held accountable? Others not-responsible have to pay the bill? No doubt the irresponsibility and incompetence in government is rampant regardless of credentials.

          1. there are some things that require a licensed individual.

            probably the same things that would require a license in the us, having your own practice as a doctor, but as far as i know you don’t need to be licensed to work at a licensed practice run by another doctor, he essentially takes on the responsibility, that said without a license one couldn’t authorize prescriptions.

            when it comes to civil engineering it is probably similar, i know you can have building drawings done up by anyone who knows the drafting rules well enough, but they still need to be confirmed by the state anyway so the licensed check might happen in that process.

      2. Engineers are not doctors. Engineers are not lawyers. I have held several jobs as an Engineer and never been required to be licensed in any way. To imply that such is required to put the word “engineer: on your business card is not correct and inventing something that does nor exist for all disciplines.
        PS – this has noting to do with hacking…

    2. Your mileage will vary from state to state and from time to time. When I was fresh out of (engineering) school I was an “engineer” for two different companies before the state cracked down on companies abusing the title. We all kept our jobs, salaries, and duties…. but we all got new business cards that had our name and department instead of our previous illegal titles. I eventually became a PE and opened an engineering company… getting a PE is like getting a hydrotest on your vessel. It doesn’t /im/prove it, it proves it.

    3. In my own little opinion, someone who graduates from a ABET program should not even have to take the exam.It should be reserved only for this who have non-accrediated degrees.

      According to the NSPE website, you are required to have 4 year experience under a PE to qualify, Which means that in my 20+ years experience as an engineer, I would not qualify beyond perhaps passing the EIT exam (being my last engineering course was in the last 80’s, we know how well that would work out!) Heck, I studied for months to pass my PMP exam, and I doubt that was as hard.

  7. Most education/certification programs require irrelevant courses. For example I had to take a Cobol course for a computer science degree. Engineering programs also have useless courses.
    Fortunately in Canada where I live you can do your own electrical, plumbing, etc. and only need certification to publicly offer your services for hire. An engineer’s stamped drawing is required where plans do not fall under the building code, but if you know how to do it yourself, its easy to find a civil engineer to review and stamp your plans for a minimal cost.

  8. Any thing but “maker”. There was that all to brief moment when “inventor” was the defining genre…then some one jangled keys in our face with a slick domain and sploosh, gone.

  9. I’d like to note that there are big differences between US/EU in terms or licensing of engineering professionals. In the US there seems to be a big swing towards protectionism for the state, with a requirement to transfer/re-register between the states, and onerous requirements to become licensed.

    I was initially very surprised when looking at the US system, and it required a degree of change in my thinking to come to the conclusion (obvious to americans, but not to other nationals) that the US is not a single country its the equivalent of the EU, a federation of states, with their own laws and oddball ways of doing things. From which you end up with very anti-competitive legislation. Coming from the UK, we have (for the moment) professional societies that issue certificates of competence, which bring cross recognition between EU members, thus limiting anti-competitive behaviours.

    I personally think that engineer should be a protected term (much like architect) and not used for the equivalence of technician, etc. As it blurs the lines of responsibility, professional engineers should always be aware that their decisions could have life and death consequences.

    1. your differentiation between technician and engineer seems a tad arbitrary, are you saying the primary difference is that the engineer holds responsibility while the technician does not?

      what people like to refer to as “engineers” in the protected sense usually covers civil engineering and maritime engineering, there are probably many more that i am ignorant of but usually it doesn’t cover most modern engineers, as i see it this entire thread is about what we can and cant call engineers, in that sense if we follow tradition then only selected areas of technical expertise can be considered engineering, where i am more of the opinion that engineering is a method and process and not a subject matter.

  10. Licenses aren’t there to show you know what you’re doing, just that you know the minimum.
    As others have stated, many times you have the ability to do the work to the relevant standard (electrical, home design) but you still need someone to sign the paper work so your insurance company won’t drop you. It’s just someone to pass the buck to or prop up in front of the lawyers to avoid paying for damages.

  11. Engineers were generally the unfortunate men tasked with breaching castles.

    In some ways the job hasn’t changed…

    Meritocrats often suffer from an overly developed sense of control, and they often “write checks with their egos, that their intellect can’t cash”.

    Is is generally illegal for people the claim an Engineer title without taking a government exam for a seal (even if you already have an academic degree). It is treated similarly to impersonating a doctor or a lawyer. Having travelled quite a bit, there are many places where the title is applied to technicians, maintenance workers, and equipment operators with no formal certification.

    We all know Solidworks created a generation of halve-wits, and people are always astonished how many mechanical & electrical engineers end up trying to code. Now grab your Petard and head for the door smart guy.

      1. I actually agree with this… It’s too easy for a “Designer” to pretend to be an “Engineer” and make a model for a thing that is either unmanufacturable or just not up to mechanical engineering spec for whatever it needs to do. It’s not obvious that the required analysis didn’t go into some random part. But this is also true of everything else and not just 3D CAD. So this should be extended to CAD in general.

        1. It was a problem before cas was commonplace. I interned in a machine shop while I was studying to be an engineer… the number of times I got a hand drafted part, with impossible tolerance specifications (due to material and temperature properties) became a running joke.

        2. Very true. The only experience I have had with solidworks is using it in my robotics class, where we used it to spec out frames, drivetrains, and other gear systems. I can understand it from that point of view. (I’m currently still in high school, currently taking a CTE course.) I’m no longer in the class, as my school has swapped teachers so many times it’s not worth the hassle, I’ve since switched to an electrical/electronic engineering class.

        1. actually understanding what and why you are doing what you do in these software packages is very helpful just from an operation point of view.

          if you have no clue about mechanical engineering you wont be able to properly simulate it in solidworks either.

  12. It is the never ending question, the egg or the chicken…Legislating and attempting to mitigate every risk made everyone
    think that common sense can only come on a card…

    These day people a struck by a heavy load of regulation and stripped of ability.
    You cannot do anything without having to pay for someone that you’re not even certain it will be competent to do the job…
    First, there is a lot of pretends to be competent..There should be checkpoint along the project. Having written condition on papers also help if the quality of the job is not delivered…

    But yeah, it suck, a broken ac outlet should be done by an electrician…I always done it myself as I am an electronic tech…At work, I do work in X-Ray equipment can fix a generator tel what is wrong…Play in around 120 kv, but not touch the 3 phase entry of the high voltage input…(Electrician job) Not that I am looking for it, happy to leave the job to somebody else. ;o)

    .But with all these creations of regulations, sometimes we run into some that withdraw our ability to self-sustain and other regulations just are not making sense and then people lose trust in regulation.

    Where should be drawn the limit without being stripped of being able to do something in you home, that is to code and bear the weight if you done it wrong…Because you will hire someone, and He will do it wrong with little recourse to for yourself to recover as joey was unsolvable…Lawyer are behind you to Help 300$ per hour…

    There is not such thing of a certification for talents and proof of common sense or competency…
    Everything goes back to do you have a paper…Yes, we can buy a tram of 100 sheets which size you want?
    Sometimes experiences will beat the papers…Back to the chicken or the egg…

    1. Stephane, I tend to agree. I add, there are too many unneeded regulations in the USA. First easy example: car SMOG check, eliminate it, do allow laws for vehicles that produce visible pollution.

  13. “When someone builds a bridge, he uses engineers who have been certified as knowing what they are doing. Yet when someone builds you a software program, he has no similar certification, even though your safety may be just as dependent upon that software working as it is upon the bridge supporting your weight.”–David L. Parnas

        1. That is truly sad! I recently got a copy of the Electronic Design Magazine 2016 Salary survey, and the typical EE makes $106,250. No mention of any PE cert in the survey, though 30% had a Master’s Degree, and 7% had a Phd. (I’m in the sad group with some “Graduate Studies”).

    1. in what is essentially a field of abstractions that is somewhat understandable, the universe wont exist for long enough to make exhaustively sure that nothing will ever make some piece of technology go wrong in a dangerous way, quite literally.

      1. Yes, the Universe is a dangerous place. Certifications don’t make it less dangerous, they just make you feel safer while cock-blocking capable young talent from meaningful employment.

  14. I am a strong proponent of beating engineers with sacks of doorknobs and forcing them to work on the things they design if they thing they are being “clever” at the sake of serviceability. Mostly my ire is directed at the automotive engineers where “common sense” things like being able to change the air filter without disassembling the front of the car, or the oil filter located where it can be removed without other large part removal, or putting the starter under the intake maniforld… Those engineers need to be very black and blue for their crimes against common sense.

    1. High reliability parts are the answer to that complaint. A properly designed starter shouldn’t fail in the conceivable lifespan of the motor. That has certainly been true for our pair of Mercedes. Nearly 300K miles each and no sign of a starter problem. Design-wise they made the common things easy. The oil and filter can be changed in dress clothes and white gloves.

      1. It shouldn’t, but a number of them will anyways. There are no “forever” parts – only low maintenance parts.

        And since there still exists this service requirement, there’s no point in over-over-engineering the starter motor. It can be twice as cheap, half as heavy etc. etc. if you permit 10% to fail during the lifetime of the car instead of trying to squeeze the number down to <1%

        1. However, where you put it also has consequences for how long it lasts. Put it right down the bottom, easy to change, but catching all the salt spray, wet, slush, random grit… and it’s not going to last all that long… but it’s real easy to swap out. Same goes for lower front mounting most of the time… Tuck it up the back too far and you’re probably cooking it with the exhaust manifold, it’s dry, but toasty, you’re baking the grease out of it continually…. put it underneath the water pump and it’s going to be bathing in coolant every time the weep hole drips… put it where oil might leak, you’ll think is okay apart from it getting messy, but not really, that can wash out bearing grease also.

          Probably they are getting it more right than wrong these days, I haven’t had to change a starter motor in the extended family’s fleet in years.

    2. Or how about simply not positioning various difficult to clean parts of the vehicle directly beneath the oil filter, where dirty oil dribbles all over them then sideways to drop onto your driveway?

      I used to have a 1995 Buick Century, it had a plastic drip guide mounted on the side of the engine below the filter. It *almost* worked. It was about 1/4″ too short so that oil would still drip onto the front of the suspension crossmember. Even when they try to apply some sense to a design they can still get it wrong, and the underside of your car and your driveway still get oily.

      How about the original iPhone 4? Obviously a lack of common sense in the antenna design. The engineers who did the design certainly knew that bridging the antenna gap with a fingertip or other bit of skin would short it out, causing drastically reduced range.

      In cases like that, engineers can be too close to the problem. They knew what would make it fail so in testing they would have made sure to *not* hold the phone in any fashion which would short the antenna. What about people outside the engineering department? Well, show them the proper way to hold it so it works.

      Ah, but then there’s the general public, the Apple faithful, people whom the vast majority of know absolutely nothing about antennas etc. And some of them are left handed. For the majority of those right handed people, where the engineers placed the antenna gap is where the tip of the little finger naturally comes to rest. For southpaws, the base of the thumb would contact a much larger span of the edge of the phone, almost certainly bridging the antenna gap.

      That entire mess, and Apple having to give away a lot of fancy rubber bands, would have been avoided simply by handing functional prototypes to a bunch of iPhone owners not involved in any way with the iPhone 4, without any prompting or instruction on how to hold it or do anything with it. (And include some left handed people too!) Then tell them to make some calls while the engineers observe things like the signal meter.

      There would have been some puzzlement. “How can this be? In testing, when *we* use it, it works perfectly! What are these people doing to cause the problem?”

      There surely would have come an “Ah ha!” moment from seeing how people would hold the iPhone 4, then they would tell the test group, “Thank you for coming in today. Please remember the NDA you signed, and here’s your $50 Apple Store gift certificate.” The next thing would be going back to the CAD systems to rotate the antenna around to put the gap somewhere on the top or bottom end, aesthetics be damned, doesn’t matter if it requires some redesign inside to accommodate the change, far better than shipping millions of devices that would have a serious problem *simply due to people holding it normally*.

    3. SolidWorks doesn’t have the ability to simulate human-serviceable assemblies. It assumes your an imp from the 5th dimension, and can simply magic things together.

      1. Very true. This sort of software does exist “out there” though. A documentary on one of the big US nuclear subs (Ohio or Virginia class?) showed a custom bit of software and humanoid model they created specifically to assess serviceability – the bolts, replaceables and access paths were tagged and the model would quickly tell the engineers “humans don’t bend that way” when they modeled up something infeasible to service.

  15. Man, no offence for you but there’s another 3/4 of the Planet that is outside the USA borders and tries to find these articles interesting. Is there such a poor documentation available globally that prevent a proper description of engineering requirements from the other states and countries outside the Northern American continent?

  16. Maybe I’m the only PE here? Engineering licensing is more than your state saying – hey! take a test and give us money. In most states there is a work experience requirement, letters of reference, and then a test. Once you have a license, then there are some minimal continuing ed requirements. Also, companies are “licensed” which is why most practicing engineers are not licensed individually. In my case, most of my co-workers not licensed, and don’t plan to be. But for the items we produce that have to be compliant to the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, the design documents are legally required to have a stamp. And that’s a good thing.

    As far as expanding the requirements for licensing, I think we (in the US) are pretty well covered.

    1. Hey, I’m here with you!

      Thanks for writing this so I don’t have to.

      I’d add that established fields are pretty well covered by existing licensing regimes, but I think some of the newer fields, like “Software engineering” are not. I think that part of the problem is that these things are changing so quickly that any attempt to develop a licensing program quickly finds itself irrelevant after a couple of years of work. Maybe in twenty or thirty years, things will settle down a bit and a good system for assigning blame for mistakes (that’s licensing for you) will be developed for them too…

      1. Software is already recognized. but I don’t know how wide spread the acceptance is by the states (is is in mine)
        From my point of view, the only thing missing is regulations that require software to be “stamped” for certain applications, which generally, are focused on protecting the health and safety of the public.

          1. There is also stuff like DO-178 for avionics software. There are other similar standards out there; they tend to focus on the software itself adhering to certain requirements rather than the person who wrote it.

    2. HEY…. LISTEN YOU!!!
      There is only one person around here qualified to talk about pressure vessels and that’s Benchoff. If you can’t make it out of PVC, then it shouldn’t be made! I bet be has like 20 PE licenses at this point.

      ps.. are you implying that a stamp makes something good? How about independent review by a qualified professional (or multiple qualified professionals) instead of a stamp. doesn’t that sound better?

  17. The first trade guilds were developed due to the Roman Empire dictating ones father as tradesman (baker, mason, whatever) and son and grandson all took said profession out of legal responsibility, or move out of the empire.
    The trade professionals grew to know one another, and with time distinguished themselves by peer association. Pride in ones work? Webber suggested that from groups of like minds gathering, professional trade skills were developed, fostered and taught as best practice.
    The maker spaces that are popping up are the new trade guilds in their infancy. The people training and writing the best practices are shaping our future standards.
    It would be a logical conclusion for the term “engineer” to be replaced by “mechanic”, for the legal protection of the individual.
    Further to this discussion, I would advise a discourse about the nature of the social contract, and the role of the legislator now being the eye in the sky controlling it.
    If the term engineer is to be examined properly, perhaps we need to redefine the current terms used in this community to redefine the roles of open source/open Democratic thought, and free will exercises to better understand the positions we hold in our lives and to each other.
    I argue for this process to become an ongoing dialog in this space from now on. We need guidelines for safety, best practices, standards for hardware generation, standards for computer programming, and standards for our own people to hold dear and follow or adhere to. Nothing to broad. Just an ongoing discussion about who we are and why we do what we do.

  18. Actually, over the last decade it seems there’s been a large move across all professional qualifications to make the certification a post graduate qualification. Whereas some professional professions used to allow access from a 2 year community college type program, now they want relevant degree, plus equivalent of masters level or higher, profession specific courses. I presume this is to stay ahead of the “A degree is the new high school certificate” mentality.

    1. Well, there’s a difference between being able to pass classes and being able to actually perform, so I think separating the two is reasonable. Also, in the US there’s still some states that allow access to some professions via other pathways than a 4 year degree (usually via lots of work experience in the field under the supervision of a professional).

      Regardless, I don’t think the US system is a bad one: Fields where licensure is common but not mandated still usually allow for non-licensed individuals to work under the supervision of a licensed professional. Engineering is a bit confusing because the word “engineer” has been co-opted by the HR folks to make jobs sound better (“Sanitation Engineer”), and there are lots of engineering specialties where no licensure is available, even if you were well trained (Software). This makes the idea of setting “Engineer” as a protected term a bit hard to swallow in those fields, but I think we could get over that if need be.

  19. I went down the rabbit hole on the Hyatt walkway collapse. Common sense, to me, as an unlicensed engineer, tells me that the structural engineering service provided by Gillum when building the Hyatt consists primarily of analyzing spans and connections. For both, you simply compute the weight (dead weight + live weight + safety margin) and then reference an appropriate table.

    That common sense approach would have prevented that disaster. Even the original plans specified connections insufficient to the load. I have no idea how such a failure happens, but it has everything to do with process and nothing to do with common sense.

  20. I’m a back end web developer by day. I call myself a programmer or a web developer but my job title is Software Engineer. I never finished my Computer Science degree (couldn’t afford to finish) and even if I did that isn’t an engineering degree so it does seem a little weird to be to be called an Engineer.

    I certainly try and live up to that title and take pride in my work but if I mess up no one is going to die either.

    1. Would you have the same reaction to an image of an ugly woman, or a man? Maybe the picture should be redone with a chimpanzee holding the card. Then there would be no human to be offended about.

    2. Oh come on, with a name like “Volt”, that person has to be “good”. /sarc

      Seriously, I think that is a discussion point, does a license or formal education make for a better engineer? I have not worked with licensed people, but with formal educated and not formally educated. In both groups there are the competent and those that care about relevant qualities, and in both groups there are the not-so-good and people that don’t care, and probably don’t know, what good job is.

  21. In the examples you give it doesn’t matter what those people call themselves, they should have the processes in place to stop unsafe items from being produced. The walkway safety margins should have been maintained and the designs should have had clear information on them regarding the safe limits of construction – any changes should have had a full change board review with, potentially, new evidence produced on its safety limits. Process failure….

    Safety involved designs should never be done by single people no matter what they call themselves. For anything which is safety involved to be signed off, there should have been whole load of SQuEP (Suitably Qualified and Experienced People) validating and verifying each aspect of that design to catch flaws and mistakes.

  22. I always refer to myself as a computer programmer even if my employer calls me a Principal Software Engineer mainly to skirt this thorny question as there is some merit to many of the diverse views here (even some in direct conflict!). I learned to program as a hobby on my own time between ages 8 and 16 (backbof the envelope I probably sunk 5000 to 10000 hours into it during that time) at which point I started working professionally under the supervision of a mentor who’s been writing code effectively since computers existed. Long story short, after dropping out of high school due to missing two gym credits and going to work full time (doing a mix of firmware design and implementation on embedded boards and server-side code), twenty-one years later I am still a computer programmer plying my trade.
    The last time I heard a big rumble about licensing software engineers and requiring anything used in infrastructure or business requiring certifications and stamps it was a lobbying campaign by Microsoft trying to nip the spread of Linux in the bud. I fear that licensing software engineers or their output would be used primarily as a weapon against open source software and do little to improve commercial or in-house software.

    1. You got the gist of it then. Licensure and trade guilds are not at all about protecting the integrity of the trade for the common good, but rather about legal hegemony and monopoly, for the benefit of a few.

  23. One other point that I haven’t seen mentioned. In many (most?) states, you cannot register for a business license with “Engineer[ing]” in the business name, unless there is a licensed engineer on the staff. (That’s not to say you won’t get away with it… until some future time when the state engineering licencing board catches up, They’re all sticky that way.)

  24. Texas is now requiring Software Engineering PE

    The other really bad thing that Texas requires is the in the coastal counties PEs must inspect any modifications or repairs done to houses on the outside or you can’t get insurance. This is something the Insurance companies forced in the late 80’s. The good PE’s won’t even do it because of the audit risk and the ones that will are in bed with contractors there is no hope for the DIY home repair.

    1. It doesn’t say on there that its required. It just says that it is now offered (and that this is “one phase” in the licensing of software engineers which “creates a path to licensure”).

      I work for a tech company in Texas that has many people with the title “Software Engineer” and I’ve never heard of any requirement for them to be PEs (my job, carrying the title “engineer,” also doesn’t require a PE).

  25. Another Benchoff article in disguise? He usually just makes something up and doesn’t ramble on this much. This must just be one of his followers. Why does it always have to be “10 things you don’t know about PE license that could get you killed!!!”????

    More poorly written random opinion junk. The main premise, as far as I can tell since this is all over the place, is that you can’t trust an engineer without a PE license…. but magically once they have a PE license they don’t ever ever ever make walkways that could possibly ever collapse. ???? Huh? Just like a doctor with his medical license absolutely never makes a mistake and leaves a sponge in some guy. I’m so glad that absolutely never ever ever happens!

    WTF? What does some dude crashing his quadcopter into a crowd of people have to do with a PE license? Some dude with some bricks sitting on the floor in his living room does NOT prove that a design is not sound… But .. But.. But… that was ….12 BRICKS!!! 12!!!! QED! Give me some foam bricks and I’ll run the exact same stupid demo and all will be well. Obvious proof!

    Poor Poor Poor.

  26. I deal with engineers ( I use that term loosely) on an almost daily basis. As an HVAC controls technician I see more and more the lack of responsibility from engineers anymore for their mechanical design mistakes. The constant comment is that it is not their stupid design or sequence but rather how we as programmersoon program the equipment. Not sure when the engineer of record lost their responsibility to make sure their designs worked but happening more and more. And heaven forbid you question one or their design as they are the educated ones who never make a mistake. If you ask me the title has become a joke I know more people without the degree that can design a mechanical HVAC system than any engineer in our area. Maybe if someone started holding their feet to the fire when mistakes are made then the mistakes would stop happening so often.

  27. No common sense says the pebble falls faster than the brick being more aerodynamic and two bolts unconnected is weaker than one continuous bolt.

    You article is a huge fail.

  28. It’s gone past the tipping point in the UK. The person who comes to repair a washing machine, the lights or the photocopier in the office is an “engineer”. We have “Environmental Waste” and “Waste Management and Disposal” engineers who used to be called bin men (garbage men). It’s so ingrained in modern culture I doubt it could be extracted with any degree of respect.

    Personally I’d rather be called a hacker, although I’ve never taken any exams or attended “hacker university”. I think it would be easier to change the public perception of “hacker” to what it really is than change their perception of “engineer”

      1. drone isn’t generally used professionally due to standardisation(in europe at least), RPAS is the standardised term for any aircraft with a remote pilot in the loop, even if they are only supervising automated functions, calling it a drone over air traffic control channels would be breaking protocol.

        if they are autonomous they are generally just called a UAV, though with that said it is laid out so that RPAS is a subset of UAV’s so it could be more specific, since fully autonomous flight is illegal at this point there probably isnt a fully standardised term for those aircraft yet.

        souce; experience working commercially with RPAS, both as a customer and provider, also;

  29. The biggest problem I have with the idea of requiring certifications for things is that testing becomes a cottage industry that charges big bucks for the test thus excluding people.

    If there is a real need to protect the public from people who do not know what they are doing then why can’t that same public pay for it? Let the cost of developing the test be spread out among the taxpayers.

    If you want to charge the test-taker a little something for the paper and time they are consuming then fine, go for it. It shouldn’t be any more than it cost to say.. take a drivers test. Actually, it should be less since you aren’t burning fuel or wearing out a car.

    Don’t tie the test to a class. If somebody wants to self-study then why shouldn’t they. If the test is really up to the job of weeding out the incompetent then it shouldn’t matter where they obtained the knowledge. If you are afraid that somebody who didn’t spend big money and time taking your favorite classes might have missed something that they need to know then put that something on the test!

    This does mean that some people might waste a lot of time and resources taking the same test over and over. I’d be ok with the cost of the test rising to the point of getting prohibitively expensive as one keeps retaking it. Or… maybe it’s better to just limit how often one can take a given test. That way they aren’t just learning the quesiton pool.

  30. Thankfully where I live one can still hook up their own power and water to their home so long as they are the homeowner. However, to prevent those who should not being doing this (i.e. one who cannot go online to get the code book and read it or those who are completely clueless and feel electricity/water is magic and just works when it is needed) there are final inspections performed by the county and the county must provide the paperwork to the utility companies before the service can be turned on.

    To blanket require a licence to me is nonsense. When servicing others yes, when servicing ones own stuff when one knows what they are doing no. Then again I am willing to stake my own life on the work that I do, because I take pride and ownership in what I do like all should.

  31. Not sure you need a PE to make your coffee maker an IoT product.

    The PE licensure is set up so that one can get bonded and insured.

    Getting bonded and insured means one can be employed to make decisions that could result in serious consenquences.

    If you’d like to be an electrician in most states, you need licensure for the same reasons.

    Like UL certification, this is set up to limit liability.

    “If there is a real need to protect the public from people who do not know what they are doing then why can’t that same public pay for it? Let the cost of developing the test be spread out among the taxpayers. ”

    I should not have to pay for your terrible design to keep failing a test till you find an iteration that passes.

    Whenever someone suggestes “There should be a law…” or “There should be a tax on…” replace that phrasing with “Men with guns should come and take money from others for…” because that is what you are calling for.

    1. Licensure also means Men With Guns will come to protect your employment, if some up-start comes along who could possibly do a passable job at your trade, but isn’t certified by the local Lord of Employment Elegibility.

      It really is a double edged sword, that damn Government.

  32. I am always torn about the title of “engineer.” When I talk to school kids about engineering, I tell that an engineer is a person who uses science and math to solve or analyze practical problems. However, these days you hear a lot of engineering titles thrown around to anyone who does any sort of technical (and sometimes non-technical) work. “Software engineers” don’t have to be licensed to practice, while civil engineers do. What’s in a name and does any of this matter?”

    Al, in what capacity are you addressing school kids about engineering? Do you give lectures on the subject or are you referring to conversations you’ve had with young people in general?

    “When I talk to school kids about engineering, I tell that an engineer is a person who uses science and math to solve or analyze practical problems.”

    An engineer is a person who uses science and math to analyze the trade-offs of the many solutions to practical problems.

    The trade-offs thing is an important detail.

    Most of the time “cheaper” is “better.” Sometimes it’s being fastest to market. Sometimes it’s just making a prototype function at all to prove a concept. Sometimes it’s making something reliably function in an outdoor environment for >15 years.

  33. This article is totally idiotic. A license doesn’t “do” anything other than heighten the entry requirements and give control away from merit value to, usually nepotism. There are millions of licensed drivers, yet more deaths than nearly ask preventable deaths. Guess what’s more? Medical related, in other words doctors and nurses, the very point you tried to use to prove licensing improved merit and success. A driver’s licenses doesn’t make a good driver. Just drive down the street and if you have “common sense” you’ll figure otherwise. And if all doctors efficacy is equal due to licensing, why do people seek better doctors when they get cancer? People are people, it doesn’t change just because of professional capacity. That’s ludicrous, and insane. A good engineer is the one that has proven, or shown his talent for efficiency and efficacy, something harder to do with more entry requirements. Therefore, licensing is nearly moot. Most great artists, engineers, and scientists of old weren’t licensed, should we trust them? Licensing didn’t come from a need to separate good from bad, but to give control. It was born out of the teamsters union, which came from the Mafia. And even to this day they use mafia style tactics, fear. Whether it’s licensing, building permits, building codes, classifications, building zones, etc. I could go on forever, but main point? This article is not reality, it’s a projected reality accepted by the author given by someone else with authority in thier eyes, and deceived then into an illusional reality, weren’t the real reality is controlled by the deceiver, all through fear.

    1. Couple typos, I wrote it on my phone, hopefully you get the point. Maybe I just needed a license in cell phone writing and I wouldn’t have made a mistake. (insert fart noise here)

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