From Technician to Engineer
We’ve had a couple posts on this topic of engineer vs craftsman vs technician but I found myself in the past couple of days discussing this topic in two different settings and thought it would be fun to revisit on the blog. I started the conversation with a post that quoted Tom DeMarco concluding that “software engineering is an idea whose time has come and gone.” Also quoted was Jeff Atwood stating that “If you want to move your project forward, the only reliable way to do that is to cultivate a deep sense of software craftsmanship and professionalism around it.” Marty picked up the conversation in another post stating that:
All of this goes to say that software developers rarely “engineer” anything – at least not anymore and not in the sense defined by other engineering disciplines. Most software developers are closer to the technicians within other engineering disciplines; they have a knowledge that certain approaches work but do not necessarily understand the “physics” behind the approach. In fact, such “physics” (or the equivalent) rarely exist. Many no longer even understand how compilers and interpreters do their jobs (or care to do so).
I think it is possible that we are seeing the evolution of our discipline as it struggles to determine what its final form will take. Computer science, information technology, software engineering, and other related disciplines are all relatively new fields of study. With a new discipline it should be expected that definitions and themes will need to be stretched or reconsidered.
Software engineers, similar to other engineering disciplines who are taught more “true” laws such as Newton’s or Faraday’s, also undergo something of an apprenticeship once their degree is conferred. Mechanical and electrical engineers work beside senior engineers who help them transition from the theoretical to the practical. Software engineers are often apprenticed in the same manner by more senior engineers. If the practical implementation of one discipline is considered engineering because it is based upon laws and principles, I would argue that the principles of architecture for scalability are of a similar nature. This in fact I think is a strong differentiator between technicians and engineers within the software development discipline. A technician can write code, setup a database, or administer a server. An engineer can architect a database or system or pool of servers such that it can scale. We’ve written several posts about the principles and patterns of scalability and a large part of our book is dedicated to these principles. Are these sufficiently established to be called a principle as defined in Wikipedia?
A principle is one of several things: (a) a descriptive comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption; (b) a normative rule or code of conduct, and (c) a law or fact of nature underlying the working of an artificial device
I still like the idea of software developers as craftsmen and -women but as I concluded in the other post, that discussion for me is as much about organizational size and control as it is anything else. The technician vs engineer discussion I think is best held in the light of are they or are they not applying laws or principles. As the American Engineers’ Council for Professional Development defines engineering “The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop…” Have we as a discipline, especially in terms of scalability, advanced enough to call what we use “principles”? Let us know what you think.