Monday, February 02, 2009

Engineering Ethics and "Software Engineering"

Every now and then I like to write about something that is at least potentially controversial. The question of whether software engineering is really engineering ought to do it. I'd like to be more specific: should people who call themselves software engineers be bound by the same professional ethical principles that other engineers claim to follow?

As types of engineering go, software engineering is a relative newcomer. Philosopher Michael Davis, who has written extensively on engineering ethics, traces the first use of the term to a 1967 NATO meeting on software design. Since then, computers and the software they all have to run on have become a huge part of everyday life, and an even greater part of engineering. There are seventeen accredited undergraduate programs at U. S. universities and colleges in software engineering, and by that and other measures you might think software engineers have as much right to call themselves engineers as any other member of the profession. But Davis isn't so sure.

That may be one reason that Davis, along with twenty-four other experts, contributed to the creation of a distinct ethical code for software engineers. It is promulgated by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in cooperation with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The IEEE Code of Ethics, which has been around for at least thirty years, is only 256 words long. By contrast, the full version of the ACM/IEEE Software Engineering Code of Ethics is over 2400 words long (although a shorter version is also available). More important than such superficialities as the length of the codes of ethics is the question of why software engineers need a separate set of ethical principles in the first place.

One reason may be that the education and training to do software engineering is markedly different than the typical training that other kinds of engineers receive. If you look at the undergraduate curriculum of most engineering programs, you see a solid one- to two-year foundation in the sciences: physics, mathematics, and (usually) chemistry. But it is generally accepted that people who can do good programming don't need to know any physics or chemistry, and even the utility of the kind of mathematics most engineering programs emphasize (that is, calculus, differential equations, and so on) is questionable. The type of science called computer science obviously relies on mathematics, but people without any significant background in computer science do software engineering all the time.

Are the ethical issues faced by software engineers markedly different compared to those faced by other engineers? The people who came up with the ACM/IEEE software engineering code seemed to think so, or else they would have simply referred inquirers to another code of ethics such as the IEEE's. A cursory reading of the ACM/IEEE code's long form reveals only a few items that could not explicitly apply to other kinds of engineers as well. For example, item 5.03 of the ACM/IEEE code states that those managing or leading software engineers should "[e]nsure that software engineers know the employer's policies and procedures for protecting passwords, files and information that is confidential to the employer or confidential to others." This is good advice to any type of manager, not just managers of software engineers. My sense is that, rather than leave some ethical stones unturned, the writers of the ACM/IEEE software engineering code tried to think of nearly every issue that software engineers might face, whether or not it pertains peculiarly to software engineering.

As a member of an older engineering discipline (electronic engineering), I confess to a twinge of professional jealousy as software engineering gains prominence. The truth of the matter is that as time goes on, the old divisions between disciplines become harder and harder to find in a typical workplace. It has always been true that many engineers also do management at various times, and often become full-time managers later in their careers. But nowadays it is hard to find any kind of engineer who doesn't at least use software, and every engineering student takes at least a smattering of computer-code writing along the way to graduation.

Still, there is the old notion that engineering is fundamentally about physical stuff, not the ephemeral and fundamentally non-material thing called software. Be that as it may, it is a hard fact that software is (a) produced by people with special knowledge for (b) use by non-specialists who (c) can be seriously inconvenienced (or worse) by software that doesn't perform as expected. Those three items have been true of all engineered products since we began to talk about engineers in the nineteenth century, and they are also true of the non-material product called software. So from a pragmatic standpoint, those who write software for sale or use by others bear the exact same type of responsibility as engineers who design bridges or rockets. For that matter, no bridge or rocket is designed today without at least the use of software, so by implication, software engineers are involved in most other kinds of engineering too.

Software engineering is still a young field, and news items about grand software-project disasters still come up from time to time. But the same was true of the earliest iron and steel bridges: they collapsed with alarming frequency. However, their designers didn't give up on the idea. Instead, they studied what went wrong, learned from their mistakes, got more organized as a profession, and went on to improve the next generation of bridges. I hope that the ACM/IEEE code of software engineering ethics does the same for its young discipline. But all the same, I'll take 256 words over 2400 words any day.

Sources: More thoughts on whether software engineering is really engineering can be found in chapter 3, "Are 'Software Engineers' Engineers?" of Michael Davis's book Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998). The ACM/IEEE Software Engineering Code of Ethics is currently at The IEEE Code of Ethics is at


  1. nice post, thanks for sharing!

  2. I also did a little research on it.
    I would also like to share my thoughts with you.
    Anyways, you did great job.

  3. Just found your blog today it's wonderful. I just reading this blog nice very nice. This is a affected an intrinsic and technically perfect. Seriously, though, I think the ideas behind this are admirable and I certainly agree with them. But codes of ethics, especially those signed as a precondition, don't really have much power. Either the individual has the ethics, in which case signing is irrelevant, or the individual hasn't the ethics, in which case signing is irrelevant. thanks for the wonderful entry.