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Is IT work true engineering or just plumbing?

November 18, 2008 8 Comments

And I mean no disrespect to plumbers for that comment. Many states require plumbers to be licensed, unlike software engineers.

I was reading the comment thread to this Slashdot post on the declining percentage of women studying computer science. All the explanations you would expect are offered, with a fair amount of point and counterpoint. But one commenter offered a very real example of the difference between computer science and the various professional engineering fields (civil, mechanical, etc.):

My wife and I have been married for 31 years. We met in college. She was a civil engineering major, I was a computer science major. She later changed her major to mechanical engineering when she learned that ME’s are more widely employable than CEs. When we met she was a freshman and I was a senior.

I went on to get a masters degree, she took the classes for a master degree but spent the time she would have spent on a thesis getting ready for, and passing, the P.E. exam. She has had her stamp for a long time.

We are both now in out fifties. She gets calls several times a year offering her jobs. Some in the private sector, some in the public sector. People value her decades of experience. People look up to MEs with decades of experience and a professional certification.

I was laid off for the last time on my 49th birthday and have not been able to find a technical job since. It is hard to find a company that will believe that I actually have the experience I have. I can’t tell you how many times I have had an interview where I have been challenged on my experience and even though I can prove every bit of it people just don’t believe it. And, don’t get me started on certification for computer people, compared to getting a PE certification in the computer world isn’t even a bad joke. It is mostly just a con.

Both sexism and ageism are quite rampant in the IT field. Much of the hiring that goes on consists of bringing in cheaper labor willing to work long hours without overtime. Such an approach is, I believe, counterproductive, but that’s true of much of what passes for IT decision making and management within corporations and government agencies.

The problem is that no certification and licensing standards were set up 30-40 years ago, when they should have been. The debate raged — we discussed it at length in my CS 404 class as an undergrad — but the problem was that software engineering was just then being created, and there was no consensus on what the governing standards and practices should be.

Thoughts?  ..bruce..

About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

Comments (8)

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  1. Bob_Gneu says:

    Working IT has been a real boon in my bonnet. I am 25, and even I get the response that the gentleman you quoted does. It is, however, my experience that its not necessarily the age they are arguing with. It is their own inability to learn anything new in the last year when others have taken it into their lives to learn a new language or methodology every couple months. Resume bloat is something that I have been fighting since i started with this craziness and something I continue to have to deal with.

    Regardless, you write a beautiful blog sir, and i will continue to follow it.

  2. ErikEngbrecht says:

    IT work falls into a few categories, roughly in order of the relative sizes of staff (I’m going to use auto analogies):
    1. Non-technical such as procurement, some project management, etc
    2. Service Technician (e.g. Jiffy Lube)
    3. Valet Parking
    4. Mechanic
    5. Engineer

    Studying computer science or similar only really helps with #5, which might be 1 out of 100 IT people…maybe fewer. I’m very tempted to say that software engineering is not a normal IT function. Back in the day IT kept the computers running, and part of that was writing and maintaining software. Today it’s just yelling at vendors.

    The problem is that the average “business person” can’t really tell the difference among those listed above.

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  4. Glandu says:


    I know I’m years late, but I just discovered your blog. Lot of interesting things.

    Just dropped to say situation is worse in France. I’m 39, and I had to switch to a US-based company(in the french branch) to go on working in the domain without being a manager.

    And sexism works a special way here : women are immediatly promoted to the team leader status(where they usually have no real power and all the trouble), and then are blocked from higher hierarchical position(with real power & interest). Men have both the low-but-interesting tech positions, and the high, strategic position. I stay low & I like it.

  5. bfwebster says:

    Glandu: comments are always welcome, however old the post! Besides, most of these issues in IT are, sadly, timeless. 🙂

    Interesting insight into IT sexism in France. I wonder if the ‘woman immediately promoted to team leader’ tendency comes from thinking of the woman more as a technically-trained office manager than an actual technical leader. Anyway, thanks for the additional information and observations.

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