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ChEnected Post: To Be or Not To Be… An Engineer

March 4, 2011

This post was written for ChEnected.  That (slightly modified) version can be found here.

Being a professional means that you get letters after your name, and it may make getting that next job a little easier, but can I venture to say that certification doesn’t necessarily make the engineer?

I’d like to share a story for anyone who hasn’t already heard it. At the beginning of February an engineer in North Carolina filed a complaint against a computer scientist for allegedly producing work that only a professional engineer should produce.

From the article:

Cox and his North Raleigh neighbors are lobbying city and state officials to add traffic signals at two intersections as part of a planned widening of Falls of Neuse Road.

After an engineering consultant hired by the city said that the signals were not needed, Cox and the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners’ Associations responded with a sophisticated analysis of their own. The eight-page document with maps, diagrams and traffic projections was offered to buttress their contention that signals will be needed […].

Which seems fairly innocuous to me, notable even, but one engineer took such offense to the work put before him that he felt it necessary to report Cox to the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors:

Cox has not been accused of claiming that he is an engineer. But Lacy [the DOT chief traffic engineer] says he filed the complaint because the report “appears to be engineering-level work” by someone who is not licensed as a professional engineer.

“When you start applying the principles for trip generation and route assignment, applying judgments from engineering documents and national standards, and making recommendations,” that’s technical work a licensed engineer would do, Lacy said.

He said there is a potential for violation if DOT and the public were misled by “engineering-quality work”- even if the authors did not claim to be engineers.

You can find the complete article here.

Cox did not claim to be an engineer. His team merely completed an analysis using sound engineering concepts and produced a report of those findings. Isn’t that something that should be praised? Don’t we spend a huge amount of time and effort trying to get the public to understand engineering, to engage with engineering and to respect the work we do?

Even looking past that, shouldn’t the focus be on the content? If a population thinks that something is unsafe – and is willing to go to great effort to prove their belief – then don’t we, as scientists, have a duty to approach the content of their appeal with skeptical appreciation of their methods?

Moderating Exclusivity

I understand (and fully believe) that professional disciplines need to be monitored for the greater public good. Registration of professionals affords a level of security that those taking on public responsibilities are adequately qualified to do so (through a combination of training and experience).

I also believe it is important that the correct training and foundations go in to being a good engineer. Just as I’d only go to a doctor with a degree or a lawyer who’d passsed the bar, there are some elements of engineering education which are essential to calling yourself a professional engineer.  But Cox didn’t claim to be an engineer.

Does communicating a good idea merit a scolding from the Board of Education for trying to be a teacher? Does cooking a gourmet meal call for a finger-wagging from the Professional Chef’s Association for impersonating a chef? Does writing this post mean that I should be reported to the National Association of Science Writers for doing the work of a science reporter while not being registered as one?

My opinion is that badly done engineering by a trusted professional engineer would certainly be a threat to our profession, but I draw the line at criticizing good engineering done by a non-engineer. In this age of ubiquitous information, though, perhaps we should actively ask ourselves if professional status also carries the right to be exclusive about the information which we learned to get there.

I don’t believe it does.

Beware the Imposter courtesy grahamc99; Do Not Enter courtesy DimitryB, both on Flickr.

This post was written for .

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2011 2:14 am

    Loved this post. I agree completely with your take — anyone coming to the table with the passion and skills to present compelling arguments, developed complex problem-solving analysis, write open-source software, create accurate and readable Wikipedia posts, etc. should be encouraged.

    Just because someone has been certified doesn’t necessarily mean they are competent — just that they were prepared to jump through whatever hoops the certification group presented. Accreditation and certification are specific forms of monopoly-making, and in our rapidly evolving “open information” society all monopolies are under sustained attack.

    For example, as a business owner, I may want to engage someone who is passionate about writing great software — I am getting much less interested in whether they have a formal computer engineering/science degree from a notable university/college than whether they can demonstrate their passion & capabilities. In the “old” days I may have had to use a notable “brand” from a university as a proxy for competence — now a days I’d first turn to the open source community to check out how well this individual is regarded by his peers and what his actual track record is of real software production.

    • March 6, 2011 9:47 am

      You are absolutely right, Tim. Certification is often (sadly) the result of hoop-jumping, and can sometimes result in a professional who spends more time grooming his titles than actually practicing his trade.

      I, for one, am glad that the knowledge environment is changing. It increases the competition to produce a quality product and results in a diversification of skills that can only serve to enhance each outcome.

      Unfortunately, though, many of the decision makers in the engineering profession are also staunch title-bearers (like Lacy from the article). It will be getting them to see the value in open-source and crowd-sourced solutions that really allows the knowledge exchange trend to flourish.

  2. June 27, 2014 12:49 pm

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  1. Certification — monopoly making in the info world | Musings of a Business Engineer

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