M7 Discussion

Legal status of software engineering
Capers Jones
Poware Productivity Research

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s the term “software engineering” a misnomer? That
question has long been debated within the computer
science, programming, and software engineering

community. Naysayers point to the software activity’s
large trial-and-error component and its notable lack of
solid intellectual and ethical underpinnings. On the affir-
mative side, ACM and the IEEE Computer Society recently
joined forces to move software engineering toward pro-
fessional status.

Barry Boehm, TRW professor of software engineering
at USC and an ACM member of the IEEE CS/ACM task
force, summarized some new-and serious-implications
of the debate in the September 1994 Software Engineering
Technical Council Newsletter.

Currently, software engineering is not one of the 36
engineering professions
recognized and licensed in
the United States. This situ-
ation is more serious than
you might think, because
48 states have laws on their
books that prohibit anyone

T ennessee now actively
prohibits the use
of “software

who is not licensed from
using the term “engineer”

engineering” in

in describing his occupa-
tion and work.

As Boehm points out,
these laws are beginning to
be enforced. The state of

literature and

Texas has forced universities to stop offering master’s
degrees in software engineering. Tennessee now actively
prohibits the use of “software engineering” in business lit-
erature and advertising. New Jersey considered, but did
not pass, a regulation that would have required licensing
of all software professionals employed within the state.
(The fact that this regulation would essentially have shut
down all software businesses and forced them to leave the
state was eventually recognized.)

This legal phenomenon affects all of us involved in soft-
ware. It makes us vulnerable to the probability of increas-
ingly onerous rules and regulations passed by
well-meaning-but clumsy and often ill-informed-leg-
islative bodies. Consider, for example, the hazardous situ-
ation now faced by computer and software consultants. As
a result of legislation and regulations to determine who is
or is not an employee, many software consultants have
come close to losing their ability to practice independently.


What makes an engineering profession?
Let’s consider some of the attributes of the recognized

engineering professions, such as electrical engineering,
mechanical engineering, and civil engineering. What do
they have that software engineering lacks? Also, what
characteristics do the nonengineering professions, such as
medicine and law, have that make them true professions
instead of mere occupations?

In the broadest sense, the factors associated with rec-
ognized engineering professions and other formal profes-
sions include

l a well-defined body of knowledge, and often many sub-
sets of more specialized knowledge;

l academic curricula that transfer the body of knowledge
to students well enough so that a significant percentage
can pass qualifying examinations;

l qualifying examinations that certify at least minimal
competence for general practice of the profession;

l a formal set of subspecialties, each with a substantial
body of knowledge and some form of certification, often
created by accreditation boards within each specialty;

l continuing education for those within the profession to
maintain currency in the overall profession and their
chosen subspecialty;

l a code of ethical responsibilities for those engaged in
the profession and its specialties;

l strong professional associations capable of creating qual-
ifying examinations and certifying specialties in con-
junction with state and other governmental agencies;

l a recognized canon of standard practices for common
conditions, against which claims of professional mal-
practice can be evaluated;

l methods for monitoring and dealing with instances of
professional malpractice, and a formal mechanism for
decertifying those found guilty of professional mal-
practice; and

l liability insurance coverage for professionals that pro-
tects them and their employers from a portion of the
financial consequences of losing law suits for profes-
sional malpractice.

To a greater or lesser degree, the software community
fails to meet any of these criteria. However, IEEE Computer
Society and ACM task forces are exploring these topics with
the idea of making software engineering the 37th engi-
neering profession, perhaps by the end of the century.

Following the path of the medical profession
A very instructive book, which I recommend to task

force members a n d a n y o n e else interested in creating a
highly regarded profession, is Paul Starr’s The Social
Transformation ofAmerican Medicine (Basic Books, N e w
York, 1982).

It’s b e e n only 1 5 0 years or so since medical practice
faced challenges similar to those software faces today: It
was a n amorphous a n d fragmented community with
many questionable a n d unproven practices, a n d academic
training s p a n n e d every possibility from state of the art to
totally inept. In fact, it was just over 1 0 0 years a g o that
Johns Hopkins University took the unprecedented step of
requiring medical students to have college degrees as a
precondition for admission.

In every drive toward professionalism, there are com-
peting forces a n d p o w e r groups with vested interests. At
the very minimum, there are universities, professional
associations, legislative bodies, the profession’s knowl-
e d g e workers, the knowledge workers’ employers, a n d of
course the clients the knowledge workers serve. To this
basic set, w e can also a d d insurance companies a n d attor-
neys w h o specialize in providing services to the profes-
sion’s members a n d enterprises.

Each participant has its o w n vested interests, so com-
petition a n d politics are the order of the day. However, for
any occupation to succeed to the same d e g r e e as medical
practice, a strong professional association must emerge to
s h a p e events.

In particular, the profes-
sional association must
have a strong voice in
establishing basic acade-
mic curricula (individual
universities are too chaotic
a n d d o n ’t grasp the big pic-
ture); in establishing
licensing or accreditation
criteria (legislatures will
botch it up), a n d in moni-
toring a n d eliminating
malpractice (otherwise,
liability insurance will b e
unobtainable). A related
but more subtle topic is the
role of professional associ-
ations in minimizing com-

T he professional association
must have a
strong voice in
establishing basic
curricula, in
licensing or
criteria, and in
monitoring and

petition from nonmembers w h o lack accreditation.
Right now, software engineering is in about the same

condition as medical practice was in the 1890s. Software
is already a n important topic, but the practice of creating
software is undisciplined a n d often “unprofessional” in
any serious use of the term. Academic training is spotty,
a n d the thought of qualifying examinations and/or licens-
ing remains highly unpalatable.

If the software engineering community cannot rise to
the level of becoming a recognized profession a n d engi-
neering discipline, w e face a n uncertain future with ever-
mounting prospects of unfriendly legislation a n d harmful
government actions.

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