Answers to FAQs about Software Licensing

Software exam developer tries to clear up a few misconceptions

3 February 2012

phil Photo: Christopher Laplante

Editor’s Note: IEEE Fellow Phillip Laplante is chair of the Software Engineering Licensure Examination Development Committee. A professional engineer, he also is a professor of software engineering at Pennsylvania State University, in Malvern. In addition, he is a member of The Institute’s Editorial Advisory Board.

I get asked many questions about the need to license software engineers [see "Licensing Software Engineers Is in the Works"]. Let me list some of the more commonly asked ones and my answers. I want to make the disclaimer that I am not a lawyer and the answers I provide here are based on my opinion and not those of any entity.
I have an undergraduate degree in something other than software engineering, is there a path to licensure for me?
State laws usually allow those with degrees in “closely” related disciplines, and applicable work experience, to be considered for licensure but usually additional years of work experience are required. A graduate degree in software engineering typically will count towards those years of experience. Completing such a degree will certainly help to fill the knowledge gaps that will help you become a better software engineer as well as pass the Principles and Practices Exam. You will still need to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, which covers a broad range of basic engineering disciplines. You could prepare for that exam by taking applicable credit or non-credit courses or through self-study.
I have been working as a software engineer on life-critical systems for many years, why do I have to obtain a license?
You probably do not need a license if you perform your work as an employee of a large company or government agency. If you are offering your services directly to the public, say, as a solo practitioner or through a small consulting firm, and you live in one of the 10 states that will require a software license, then you probably will need to obtain a license. But those states may provide alternative paths to licensure through grandfathering based on experience or other credentials.

phil Photo: Joshua Hodge/iStockphoto

I am a software engineer working on systems that do not directly affect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Do I need a license? Can I call myself a software engineer?
If you are not working on systems that directly affect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, then you would not be required to be licensed. I believe this situation will apply to the vast majority of people working on software. State laws will differ on whether you can officially represent yourself as a software engineer, but if you are offering your services directly to the public— whatever the applications you may produce—than I do not think you will be able use the title “engineer.” If you are working as a “software engineer” for a company, then you can use whatever working title your employer gives you, but then the company becomes responsible for ensuring that the usage of the title is in compliance with appropriate state laws.
I have a license to practice as another kind of engineer (e.g. electrical), can I also practice as a software engineer?
Some states may require you to pass the exam in the discipline in which you are practicing. Others may allow you to use your own judgment as to whether you are competent to practice in a discipline in which you were not specifically tested.
Many of the other questions I receive are variations on two themes: the futility and unfairness of licensure. I usually respond to these questions by asking the poser to rephrase his question, but in terms of medical licensure. For example, “You can’t guarantee that products engineered by licensed professionals won’t fail and harm the public so why bother with licensing?” This could be rephrased: “You can’t guarantee that there will be no malpractice by licensed physicians so why bother with licensing them?” When asked this way, the questioner often retracts the question.

Or consider this question: “For years I have been developing the kinds of systems that would require a licensed professional engineer but without a license, and none have failed. So why do I need a license now?”  Rephrasing this we get: “I have been doing surgery for years without a medical license and no patients have been harmed yet, so why do I need a license now?”

While the premise may be true in all these cases, the veracity of the conclusion always hinges on the same theme: we don’t need licensure under any circumstances. But state boards of professional engineering see things differently. Their main focus is to define the conditions under which licensure should be required and enforce the law. All of this is done in the interest of protecting the public.

*On 13 June, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) announced it will begin offering a Principles and Practice of Engineering exam—PE exam—in software engineering in April 2013. Registration is scheduled to open mid-December 2012. IEEE-USA is an exam cosponsor and is working with the IEEE Computer Society to release sample questions.

*This blog has been updated since it was first published.

Photo: Joshua Hodge/iStockphoto
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