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By Jack Ganssle

Professionals?

Published 12/01/2003

Embedded Systems Programming's Editor-in-Chief, Michael Barr, wrote (
http://www.embedded.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=16100906) an interesting commentary about engineers as professionals. In it, he asks why doctors, lawyers and accountants are considered professionals, yet engineers seemingly cannot attain that same status. He pithily says "Like doctors, electrical engineers attempt to debug complex systems and proscribe solutions and workarounds that may or may not work. Like lawyers, we're masters of arcane languages and skilled in making stuff work even in the face of seemingly bad precedents. And like accountants, we sit in our cubicles and crunch numbers-and thus make someone else's life easier."

With a BS we're at least as highly educated as accountants; get a Masters and you're on an educational par with any lawyer.

So why don't most folks list engineers as professionals?

My theory is multi-faceted. First, no one understands what we do. I betcha most folks can't even accurately define the word "engineer". Dictionary.com defines it thus:
1. One who is trained or professionally engaged in a branch of engineering.
2. One who operates an engine.
3. One who skillfully or shrewdly manages an enterprise.
The first tells me nothing, though ironically uses the "professional" word. The second explains why my neighbors think I drive a train. And the third has nothing at all to do with engineering.

My definition is: "an engineer is one who uses technology to solve problems". It's broader than "one who designs things" because many of us create processes that aid in product development. It's inclusive enough to encompass dictionary.com's third definition.

The second problem is that there's still a strong cachet of nerd associated with our work. Though many of us embrace words like "nerd" and "geek", the great majority of non-techies see these as derogatory descriptions. In a sense we're still the target of the schoolyard bullies who are intimidated by three digit IQs.

Thirdly, accountants, doctors and lawyers have created regulated industries that erect strong barriers to entry and even quotas limiting university admissions. Without the Bar and Medical associations the status of these professions would be seriously diminished.

With a few exceptions engineers have never effectively banded together to regulate our profession. Most of us are too independent and too steeped in a culture that praises us as individual artistes to join a union or other collective organization which would, say, limit college admissions as the lawyers and doctors do. As a result there are no standards, other than the rarely taken-PE exam, that clearly identify who an engineer is. In the embedded space if you can spell C, you've got a job.

Finally, the engineering zeitgeist is often anti-business (witness Dilbert's pointy-haired boss). We're employees, not partners like members of all recognized professions. We build stuff, not businesses, and work at the will of our supervisor. When promoted to boss most leave the engineering profession behind and become managers, something considered quite different than engineers. Notable exceptions like Dean Kamen of Segway fame are rare.

What do you think? Do we get enough respect? Should the profession of engineering be organized, restricted, controlled or managed in some manner?