International Symposium on Software Composition

Software engineer

A software engineer is a person who applies the principles of software engineering to the design, development, maintenance, testing, and evaluation of computer software.

Prior to the mid-1970s, software practitioners generally called themselves computer scientists, computer programmers or software developers, regardless of their actual jobs. Many people prefer to call themselves software developer and programmer, because most widely agree what these terms mean, while the exact meaning of software engineer is still being debated.

Since then, software engineering undergraduate degrees have been established at many universities. A standard international curriculum for undergraduate software engineering degrees was recently defined by the CCSE. As of 2004, in the U.S., about 50 universities offer software engineering degrees, which teach both computer science and engineering principles and practices. The first software engineering Master's degree was established at Seattle University in 1979. Since then graduate software engineering degrees have been made available from many more universities. Likewise in Canada, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB) of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers has recognized several software engineering programs.

In business, some software engineering practitioners have MIS or computer information systems degrees. In embedded systems, some have electrical engineering, electronics engineering, computer science with emphasis in "embedded systems" or computer engineering degrees, because embedded software often requires a detailed understanding of hardware. In medical software, practitioners may have medical informatics, general medical, or biology degrees.

Most students in the developed world have avoided degrees related to software engineering because of the fear of offshore outsourcing (importing software products or services from other countries) and of being displaced by foreign visa workers. Although government statistics do not currently show a threat to software engineering itself; a related career, computer programming does appear to have been affected. Often one is expected to start out as a computer programmer before being promoted to software engineer. Thus, the career path to software engineering may be rough, especially during recessions.

One could argue that software engineering implies a certain level of academic training, professional discipline, adherence to formal processes, and especially legal liability that often are not applied in cases of software development. A common analogy is that working in construction does not make one a civil engineer, and so writing code does not make one a software engineer. Furthermore, because computing doesn't utilize the methods of mathematical physics common to all conventional engineering disciplines, it is more appropriate to call those engaged in this occupation as software developers or similar.

Individual commentators have disagreed sharply on how to define software engineering or its legitimacy as an engineering discipline. David Parnas has said that software engineering is, in fact, a form of engineering. Steve McConnell has said that it is not, but that it should be. Donald Knuth has said that programming is an art and a science. Edsger W. Dijkstra claimed that the terms software engineering and software engineer have been misused and should be considered harmful, particularly in the United States.

In Ontario, the Professional Engineers Act stipulates a minimum education level of a three-year diploma in technology from a College of Applied Arts and Technology or a degree in a relevant science area. However, engineering undergraduates and all other applicants are not allowed to use the title of engineer until they complete the minimum amount of work experience of four years in addition to completing the Professional Practice Examination (PPE). If the applicant does not hold an undergraduate engineering degree then they may have to take the Confirmatory Practice Exam or Specific Examination Program unless the exam requirements are waived by a committee.

In New Zealand, the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ), which licenses and regulates the country's chartered engineers (CPEng), recognizes software engineering as a legitimate branch of professional engineering and accepts application of software engineers to obtain chartered status provided he or she has a tertiary degree of approved subjects. Software Engineering is included whereas Computer Science is normally not.

Many states prohibit unlicensed persons from calling themselves an Engineer, or from indicating branches or specialties not covered licensing acts. In many states, the title Engineer is reserved for individuals with a Professional Engineering license indicating that they have shown minimum level of competency through accredited engineering education, qualified engineering experience, and engineering board's examinations.