The engineer that wasn’t there

Don’t like the term engineer? Blame NATO.

1 minute read


I’ve never been that easy with term software engineer. I use it, and have been proud to have been one in my career, but it’s the connotations that come with the word engineer.

Real engineers work, for the most part, with physical, mathematically predictable issues. They build roads, design machines, bridges, skyscrapers, operate lathes. Like software projects, engineering projects overrun in time and cost, but that’s because human beings, with their posturing, politics, aspirations and games are in charge of them.

I can see that the intellectual efforts are similar, but not the actual operational work. For every line of code you write, you are making hundreds of value judgments about things like efficiency and exception handling and lots of implied decisions about scalability and extensibility. You are expressing your own personal translation of a demand for something, into something entirely your own.

Each building block you produce will almost immediately be found to be inadequate in some way, as the direction of the end user takes the requirements to places you never thought of. You will always run out of time and yet still be expected to go live with what you’ve got, which means at a project level, it very difficult to know when you’re really finished.

Not so with physical things. You build it. It probably has some flaws and maybe you can extend it a little, but when you’re finished that’s pretty much it.

Anyway, before I get carried away, it turns out that the adoption of the term was, in part at least, due to a misinterpretation of a deliberately provocative statement, way back in 1968.

The use of the word engineer was meant as a challenge to the attendees of the NATO Software Engineering Conference to think of ways to be more engineering-like in the software world. A reasonable challenge, and one we still face today, but not meant a a new moniker for what we do.

By the following year’s conference it had become the abused term it is today. And yet, despite all our advancements since, we are arguably no closer to engineering than we have ever has been.

Food for thought that.

So when, I wonder, did the NATO Conference on Technical Architecture take place?