God Help Us, We’re In the Hands of Engineers

A comment over on Jeremy Stretch’s wonderful site touched off a bit of a discussion today about the proper use of the term ‘engineer’.  It appears that the “real” engineers in the world have gotten into a bit of a tiff with us computer nerds about why we aren’t allowed to call ourselves engineers.  A little background:

According to the font of all knowledge, an engineer is:

...a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, machines and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, safety and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin root ingenium, meaning "cleverness".
Engineers are grounded in applied sciences and are distinguished from scientists who perform research and artists who create with a focus on aesthetics. The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and the applications that meet the needs of society.


Hmm, okay.  So, that sounds like it could be a lot of things.

– applying scientific knowledge (check)

– Mathematic knowledge (check)

– Developing solutions and systems (check)

– Considering limitations of cost and practicality (double check)

Okay, so far it looks like myself and my brethren are engineers for sure.  Ah, but wait…here come the scientists:

According to multiple sources, the “real” engineer is distinguished by holding a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree in an engineering discipline, having 6 years experience, and taking one or more tests.  This appears to be the most common set of requirements (more on this later).  So, because I didn’t put down civil engineering as my major in college, I’m out.  Because I don’t have six or more years experience building sewers or roads or bridges, I’m disqualified.  And because I haven’t forked over $1000 or more to the state licensing board, I’m just a lowly technician worthy of engineer nerd scorn.

What I have done, though, is spend my career building complex systems relying on specific scientific and mathematic principles.  Knowledge that not everyone who’s ever hit the power button on their laptop has.  I make the magical packets flow so you can watch Youtube videos and download dirty pictures.  I make your e-mail work so you can get blueprints and site updates.  I keep the QoS flowing so your emergency need to check Google Earth to make sure no one built a subdivision in the way of your highway.  I do things with my knowedge that would make you cringe and look the other way because you don’t understand them.

I took industry-specific tests from Novell, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, and Symantec to prove my knowledge.  Those governing bodies granted me the right to use the titles MCNE, MCSE, ASE, and SCSE (all have the word ‘engineer’).  And, for the record, these are the same tests no matter if you take them in Texas or Thailand.  I know of engineers that took their tests in other states because they were ‘easier’ and used comity to be licensed in their home state. So, in a sense, I am an engineer for all those reasons.  Yet, the professional engineers (P. Eng) get all huffy about it.  For the record, I thought P. Eng was Sean Combs’ name this week…

In the US, you are a P. Eng if you take the classes and tests and have enough experience and get signed off upon by other engineers.  But you can still use the title “engineer” through the use of a industrial exemption.  This means that if I work in industry providing engineering services, I’m exempt from getting licensed.  This exemption is pissing P. Eng’s off left and right.  Why, might you ask?  Because civil, mechnical, and electrical engineers are using it to get past taking the tests.  The IEEE is having kittens because they think anyone involved in engineering services that directly impact public safety should be required to be licensed before they use the term.  I can see that insofar as it impacts the safety of other people.  But yelling at lowly computer nerds because they claim to be “engineers”?  Tilting at windmills, in my opinion.  And heaven help you if you claim to be an engineer in Canada without a license.  I think they dispatch the Mounties to shoot you in the street like a common horse thief.

You wanna complain about me using the title “network engineer”.  Okay, let’s switch spots for a week.  I’ll spend all day staring at blueprints trying to figure out which way the road is supposed to go.  You can head back to my desk and keep the network running and figure out why the boss’s e-mail isn’t lightning fast.  You can unclog the tubes and carry my pager to respond to network outages at 3:30 in the morning on a Sunday.  You can put up with me calling you asking why I can’t get to Youtube today to watch some cat playing the drums.  And if you don’t run screaming back to me within a day loudly proclaiming that I am truly an engineer, I promise I’ll start calling myself something totally different.  Like Network Rock Star.  Since nobody needs any talent to be one of those.

22 thoughts on “God Help Us, We’re In the Hands of Engineers

  1. Ah, P. Eng. I had so hoped you were going to post here. I’m assuming you were the same person that posted at Stretch’s site. The wording looks pretty close.

    Well, where to begin. The e-mail addy you spoofed into the comment box was pretty good (YourBloodBoilsTooOften@SorryYouGotNoHugsAsAChild.com if anyone wants to drop him a line). But enough about you, let’s get to the meat of this matter.

    You take offense to the fact that I call myself an engineer. A title you say is bound by law. I take it you’re Canadian, aren’t you? You don’t have to admit it. The fact that you’re posting from a Canadian ISP tells me enough. How did I know that? Boy, it must be a mystery? That’s one of those little things I learned in my time as a network…um, rock star. I learned how to trace back IPs to sources. I also learned what a MAC address is, why it’s unique, and why it’s probably a bad idea for your ISP to tag it in your reverse lookup. But, by now these are probably sounding more like threats, which I don’t want to come across like that.

    The truth of the matter is, I don’t really care. I doesn’t matter one whit to me what they call me. I choose to use the term “engineer” as it is the closest approximation to what I do. I could have easily chosen ‘technician’, ‘professional’ (you won’t get upset at that one too, will you?), or ‘networking deity’. But, in an effort to save time and explanation, I chose the one that seems to torque off the people that poured a lot of hard earned money into that stamp they put on blueprints.

    Since you’re so willing to hide behind an alias and a fake e-mail, let me tell you about me. I’m a college grad. I got a BBA with a concentration in Management Information Systems. That means that I know enough about computers AND business to be good at my job. I don’t poke my head in the sand when it comes time to figure out the balance sheet and I know how to calculate Rate of Return. No, I can’t sum the moments of forces on bridge trusses. Doesn’t really interest me in the least. I have as much professional experience as any other P. Eng (TM) out there. But instead of me getting it by calculating which direction sewage flows or which way roads go, I got it by dealing with complex systems like the one you are posting from. Does that make me inferior? Your call. You are the professional, after all.

    The basement comment is cute too. Stereotypes are all too often applied in lieu of actual facts. For the record, my office isn’t in my basement, its on the second floor of my house. I don’t just fiddle with switches. I also work on routers like the one on your desk that make the packet-thingies go all over the Intertubes. I work on wireless networks like the one you most likely have plugged into that router-thingie so you can post comfortable from your living room or den or study or drafting room or engineering clubhouse. I also work on phone systems like the ones that your ISP uses to answer the calls when the network at your house goes down in an ice storm or when a contractor working for an engineering firm chops a fiber line in half with a backhoe. I bow to the superiority of your profession, whether it be civil, mechanical, electrical, or what have you. But I also expect the same kind of professional respect you might give another colleague when it comes time to figure out what kind of equipment is necessary for you to connect your building so you no longer have to pass notes down the hall to communicate or call people on rotary telephones (you Canadians have tone dialing now, right?)

    I’m going to consider the matter here as an educational piece. I keep forgetting that some people become so wrapped up in titles that it becomes their identity. I used to work with a salesman that absolutely demanded he be addressed as “Director of Business Development” Did it make him do his job any differently? Nope. Senior Network Engineer is the title I currently hold. Not because I chose it, but because it was chosen for me by my peers and my superiors. But it will not be the last title I hold. I’m sure that one day I’ll probably become “manager”, or “president”, or “owner” At which point, I will gladly relinquish the title that so offends those like you that are too bound to words on a paper.

    In closing, I almost want to take the P.E exam here in Oklahoma just to spite the “real” engineers out there. But I looked at the exam details. 100 multiple choice questions? For real? I know you may not be familar with the CCIE lab exam, but it’s an 8 hour practical exam. No A,B,C,or D. Real work, no shortcuts. And after I pass that exam, I get to call myself “expert”. Which, you probably shouldn’t be using yourself. After all, you haven’t passed that exam.

  2. I’m not seeing why we’re so fixated on this. While a portion of what we do is engineering, the full spectrum of it goes beyond this. No matter what my experience in my field, I don’t meet the requirements of law to call myself an engineer. In response to “P. Eng.” above though, a Professional Engineer without our level of experience in *our* field isn’t qualified to flick any of the switches in my basement. We’re dealing with different fields, even if there are some spotty similarities.

  3. I appreciate the excellent post and reply. I don’t have the energy to wrangle trolls by myself.

    Funny how this guy clings so tightly to a title yet feels no inclination to use his real name.

  4. You know what really grinds my gears? As a communications engineer myself (bite me P.Eng) I find it frustrating when people use the word expert without any basis for it. This happens in the media a lot. Like when the new iphone or ipad comes out the news stations bring in their IT “expert” to tell us all about it. In reality its just some 55 year old dude who lost his job as a bank manager a decade ago and now spends his days playing with gadgets. I do believe a CCIE has earned the right to call themselves an expert. I also believe P.Eng doesn’t understand the scope of what we do so has little appreciation for it. Its one of those things where you can be a hardcore network engineer and years later you realize how little of the dicipline you actually know.

  5. Now that was great post and a very accurate portrayal of what we do everyday and some “others” don’t think we rate that title. Well, I could give two sheetz about the title; we know what we do and people know who to call when that “e” thingy doesn’t get them to facebook or the IEEE site..I think Network Deity has a better ring anyway.

  6. Because certain types of engineers are defined as such in a legally binding sense, that does not preclude people who engineer other types of systems from using the term to describe what they do. This isn’t a matter of law or any other such nonsense. It’s a matter of words and what they mean.

    Excellent post.

  7. Oh how I love it when the “learned” with all their pomp and pedigree manage to correct us ignorant masses. I wish there was a special ethertype code for “unclean” so that I could tag all my traffic as inferior and be done with it.

    Get over yourself P. Eng. If you are defined in life by a silly title, then that’s a pretty sad existence. My title has the word “architect” in it, but I don’t run around attending cocktail parties with people who design skyscrapers. I don’t have a whole lot in common with them except for the fact that we both design things. I certainly don’t hold that over people’s heads, because each company views terms like engineer, technician, and architect to mean different things.

    Perhaps if you had been crying out a decade or two ago, things would be different and I would be a packet facilitator or an unlicensed conductor of electrical and optical pulses.

  8. Dang now I need to get Intertubes to go with my Pseudowires?

    Nice post NN. Got me thinking that perhaps we need to troll sites telling people they shouldn’t be using the term networking for social gatherings.
    Your explanation to P.Eng, that the only defining thing about an “engineer” is the exam hits the mark. While many of us “false engineers” plug through the day (and/or night) engineering and re-engineering a network that was incorrectly engineered by an engineer before us, referring to ourselves as engineers is only because “miracle worker” is mis-leading.

    I wonder what we are supposed to change the name of the IETF to, so as not to offend all the “real” engineers…


    Brian Dooley CCIE #23688

  9. The text was doing ok until the last paragraph.
    If someone thinks that an engineer “spends all day staring at blueprints trying to figure out which way the road is supposed to go” and that this is easier – or, let’s say, involves less RESPONSIBILITY, including civil and criminal responsibility – than making e-mails travel faster and allowing keyboard cats to play on YouTube, that’s the sign saying this person is not supposed to be called an engineer.

    I’d remove the last paragraph if I wanted credibility.

  10. Gio,
    My apologies for the lack of a tag on the last paragraph. I figured since the “network engineer” had been belittled, a little bit of snarkiness was called for. After all, the assumption is that we don’t do anything to deserve the title, right? Except field phone calls from users, ensure that everything in the network runs correctly and fast, and verify that all the equipment is in working order to support the network. Note that in most offices and enterprises today, that same network runs the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system. That same network needs to be running and working correctly when the guy in the next cubicle has a heart attack and collapses and you need to dial ‘911’ or ‘999’ or whatever the emergency number happens to be. And if it isn’t working? Or the, um, telecom rock star that put in the phone system misconfigured the dial peer for ‘911’? Guess who’s legally, criminally, and civilly liable. Yep, that same telecom, uh, pop star. I can be sued and called into court because I impeded the ability of emergency services to reach that person in time. The family of that person can sue me for negligence.

    I’ve noticed from searching around and talking to my engineer friends that, aside from the hubris of having passed two long multiple-choice tests filled with lots of math, the other part of being a P.E. that makes you most proud is that you are registered and get a little stamp to put on blueprints (hey, there are blueprints after all!) and such that makes you responsible if something goes wrong. I just wanted to make you aware that us network, um, miracle workers can be held to the same standard even though we might not get the cool stamp to show it.

    “Why all the jokes about roads and sewers?” you might ask? Funny thing is…my two closest friends are civil engineers. One of them designs roads for subdivisions. The other designs sewage drainage patterns for municipalities. So forgive me if my experience with “real”engineers is colored by the time I spend with them listening to them talk about their jobs. Just as I must forgive you if your experiences with network, um, deities involves them sitting around drinking cases of Mountain Dew and complaining about “ID10T” errors or idiot “lusers”. Yes, engineers look at lots of blueprints and sign off on them to get things built. Yes, some civil engineers build roads and bridges and sewers and other things as well. But that’s not all they do.

    Just like my skills are not limited to Youtube and making the e-mails go. As for my credibility, I think it stands on its own. You can take my body of work for what it is. You can also take the fact that I’m snarky, smart-assed, and generally fun to get along with as well. It’s kind of a package deal. But I won’t take back the things I’ve said for the sake of pleasing people. It’s just not in my nature as a network, um, imagineer.

  11. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind IT people using titles as Network Engineer, Software Engineer or whatever.
    Like I said, the text was doing great. I totally agree with all the “applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems” in IT.
    But your example in the last paragraph was totally unfortunate, and it makes the text’s credibility vanish. In the end, it all becomes a childish “my father is stronger than yours. but mine is richer than yours”.

    Now, let’s take a look at this issue from an “engineering point-of view”: In practice, you can even call a pharmacist a “drug engineer”, because the definition fits. It’s ok. But we live in an organized society, ruled by laws, and the law says you must be a member of an order of engineers to present yourself as one (I myself am not an engineer. I have a degree in Engineering, but I’m not yet an engineer). So, if you don’t like this situation, you have 2 options: change the law or take the multiple-choice test. Pretty straight-forward, ain’t it?

    By definition, yes, you are an engineer. Legally, you’re not (neither am I).
    If you keep whining about it with absurd comparisons, it just makes you the same as the P.Engs. who whine about you not being an engineer. You have to respect others if you want to be respected.

    And, by the way, be careful, because your network-imagineer-nature-of-not-pleasing-people may block you from your plans of becoming a manager. You know… if advice were good, we’d sell them, not give them, but anyway…

  12. So!!! Who wins? I like to call myself an Engineer, because I’ve done 5 yrs of Engineering in college, and also because I’m also, um, well, a network imagineer? And I can chop voice into packets and send them swimming over an IP network (miracle-worker? My friends in banking certainly think so). So you see, depending on who wins, I get to keep my inflated ego, plus the title. I suggest we take a vote.

  13. I hold a CCIE, I work as a consultant, with a mix of pre-sales, design, and implementation work. I t is all very meticulous and detailed. Yet they – the people at my company who publish my business cards – call me an engineer, not a consultant or a salesman or an designer or architect or even an expert. In the end though, I don’t much care what anyone calls me. There is a minority of people – beyond the horizon of the IT obsessed -that have even the slightest clue of what I do, so I often call myself a plumber – because it is a convenient analogy that provokes a deeper understanding for the non-technical majority and saves me from making long and boring explanations at the infrequent cocktail parties I attend. There haven’t been any plumber unions take exception yet. But then I haven’t convinced my company to put it on my card yet.

  14. I’d agree the professional engineering societies are particularly nasty in Canada. I think the Mounties live in fear of them. For instance, the Professional Engineers Act in Ontario is soon to be amended to state:
    “practice of professional engineering” means any act of planning, designing, composing, evaluating, advising, reporting, directing or supervising that requires the application of engineering principles and concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment, or the managing of any such act;
    Since “engineering principles” is basically using logical/scientific/mathematical thought, they slowly expand their influence and the types of work legally requiring a P. Eng. It’s not just the IT field that are annoyed/worried. Professional engineers are also trying to control the work that natural scientists do. They seem to think they know more about chemistry, biology and physics than PhD chemists, biologists and physicists.
    Professional engineers complaining about who uses the title of engineer is just the start. Soon, they’ll claim they need to directly supervise you in the name of protecting the public welfare.

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