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.
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.
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?