Two weeks ago, The Embedded.com Newsletter invited readers to comment on an article by editor Michael Barr, who asked why engineers aren't viewed as pros.
The volume of e-mail we received was surprising, but even more surprising was the number of readers who declared that engineers standing as "non-professionals" was to be expected. Some laid the blame on the doorstep of the engineering community itself, saying that too many engineers haven't aspired to a professional code of ethics. Others compared the engineering process to an art (a description that would likely baffle most non-engineers), and inferred that art doesn't always lend itself to professional associations.
An almost universal theme of the letters, however, was that engineering as a profession is largely misunderstood by the public.
One alert reader also directed us to a well-known essay on the topic written by Herbert Hoover, himself an engineer before being elected 31st President of the United States. Find the essay at http://users.wpi.edu/~mhray/hoover.html.
A few of the best responses appear below. Thanks to all readers who wrote to us.
I appreciate your comments on how engineers are not perceived, or at least respected, as professionals. I certainly feel this attitude as an engineer myself. However I don't find it surprising. You wrote:
"Engineers, it seems to me, are as professional as doctors, lawyers, or accountants."
Doctors and lawyers both require more education and state-regulated credentials than most engineers, and that certainly distinguishes them. The other important distinction is that doctors, lawyers and accountants render services directly to the public--services that are often immediately important to someone's well-being. As long as they are competent, that inevitably makes them more endearing than engineers.
We aren't treated like professionals because we don't act like professionals.
We aren't socially adept. We fail to appreciate the importance of professional image in "the real world", so we don't project a
positive, reassuring, reasonable, learned, important-part-of-the-team image that doctors and lawyers do automatically. Even socially
inadequate doctors and lawyers know enough to shut up and at least look learned and concerned.
We don't have, teach, aspire to, or enforce a professional code of ethics that would give us backbone and the support of our peers
when asked to compromise our professional integrity by fudging our estimates for schedule, cost, effort, or quality of performance.
Nor do we insist that violations of our professional standards be held accountable for engineering disasters.
We don't form a relatively closed society based on membership and seniority like doctors and lawyers. Indeed, old engineers are to be discarded as useless, since we engineers don't value engineering experience. We don't understand the social, political, and legal value of a guild, so we don't have a guild to protect us when we need it. We have no fraternal societies to represent us politically, and we'd distrust anyone who suggested we needed political representation en masse. We don't seek legal protection for ourselves and our profession, nor legal restrictions on who may proclaim themselves to be engineers, in general. We accept the designations of our employers as our titles, instead of them accepting our independent qualifications and certifications.
We don't seek to satisfy our bosses, we satisfy ourselves and our quest for excellence or truth or beauty or art. We argue for our views inappropriately. We don't marshal allies, or seek to create them, because we don't think we need them. Engineering truth is all we need. We fail to appreciate that most of mankind doesn't care about engineering truth, beauty, or art. We do and that's enough for us.
Engineering is not considered a profession because engineers are not directly responsible for an individual client's health and welfare. Consider the list that Tom Wolfe gives as professionals: "doctors, lawyers, Army colonels, Navy captains, college professors and business
I would sort these into three groups. I would (sort) doctors, lawyers and professors in one group to which I would add the clergy and accountants. I would put Army colonels and Navy captains in the second and business executives in the third.
Consider the potential effect of each of these examples on their clients. Doctors treat individuals, and your very life is in their hands. Lawyers serve individuals, and your freedom and fortune is in their hands. Professors give you as an individual the instruction that allows you to pursue a career and the grades which determine whether you have a career as either a college graduate - or not. Your clergyman is your direct link to God, which is literally more important than life itself. Your accountant controls your money and your dealings with the IRS - your fortune.
Army colonels and Navy captains are responsible for and determine the life and death of men under them.
Business executives are iffy as professionals. At one time, they were powerful enough that their decisions would determine whether a town would live or die, and whether the jobs of many would be kept of lost. This has changed much in the 20th and 21st centuries. Businessmen are - I believe - not considered more "professional" than any other leaders of organizations, such as government. A given businessman such as your boss can have a strong effect on you personally, but it is not as much a life and death matter as it once was. Unlike a health, legal, financial, spiritual or combat problems, you can quit and get another job.
I think these are two important "cultural" factors:
1. Professionals are generally thought to act as independent, solo agents, while engineers are regarded as working in large teams under the direction of a "manager."
2. Professionals generally assess a fee for service; engineers are usually salaried employees.
Henrik (Hank) A. Schutz, Ph.D., ABOC
I don't mind so much that MDs and lawyers are given privilege to the .pro domain ... but if engineers aren't allowed, then neither should accountants. One could argue that doctors and lawyers are different because they must have a doctorate (MD for doctors, JD for lawyers)
before they can begin their "practice". Accountants typically do not ... similar to engineers.
If an engineer has a PhD and has passed the PE exam, then such a person should be considered a professional in the same vein as MDs and lawyers. But a CPA, without a doctoral degree, should not.
We hold the lives of everybody in the western world in our hands, because of the mission-critical systems we work on. Every plane, ship, phone system, electrical system, medical device, etc, must work - all the time - or much money and lives are lost. However, the general public is really unaware of this impact on their lives, except when it fails " i.e. the latest blackout.
"bandit" from the Internet
I am not (a professional) because I learned the bulk of my knowledge about programming in the back of a room in high school while the rest of the class was doing their assignments, in my bed room at night as I battled with my computer and some printed out documentation on DOS, on a beach in the summer reading through hundreds and hundreds of pages of C programming textbooks. I pretty much taught myself, just like every other computer programmer. Lawyers don't teach themselves, you would never go to a doctor who said he learned how to do surgery by practicing on himself. The best people in our field are the people that taught themselves. When I have a question, I don't go to the guy with a masters necessarily, but to the guy who writes drivers in his spare time - if he ends up having a masters, it is usually understood that it was gotten more for career, than for technical improvement. Maybe all that is changing, the image of the "nerd programmer" is disappearing a little; the nice right-out-of-college salary is attracting a lot of people who aren't lovers of binary but smart enough to do the job; the growth of extraordinarily complex software demands too many people to neglect an external qualification of the workers. But for now, as long as the people that are on the top of their game are the ones who grew up taking apart stereos and writing Qbasic for fun, we will be far from being considered professionals. Besides - don't those guys have to wears suits anyway - I'll stick with my jeans.