In August 2009 the NCEES Board of Directors approved moving forward with the development of a Principles and Practice of Engineering examination, commonly known as the PE (Professional Engineer) exam, for the discipline of software engineering.
NCEES is the umbrella organization for the engineering and surveying jurisdictional licensing boards in the United States. It develops and administers examinations used for engineering licensure. The prerequisite for NCEES to consider initiating a PE examination in a new discipline includes written requests from no fewer than 10 state licensing boards that can demonstrate a need for the examination in their jurisdictions. The requests must include proof of such need, estimate of usage, and evidence that knowledge areas and skills are not adequately measured in an existing examination.
In addition, no new discipline can be added to the examination program unless there is an ABET-accredited degree in that discipline. The jurisdictional licensing boards requesting the examination were those with significant amounts of software engineering industry and those that have institutions granting ABET-accredited degrees in software engineering.
Over the past decade there have been several efforts to establish a path to professional practice licensure for software engineers in the United States. These efforts failed for various reasons. The main obstacle was the lack of a reasonable number of ABET-accredited programs offering an undergraduate degree in software engineering. This is no longer tha case as there are now a number of ABET-accredited software engineering undergraduate degree programs available in the United States.
In a report from the IEEE-USA Licensure and Registration committee, it was noted that software engineering professional licensure affects both US IEEE members and society at large. The central issue is one of protection of public safety, health and welfare, since the purpose of licensure is to establish competence to practice in an area and not to measure the level of an individual’s expertise above the competency threshold. A large number of technologies in existence today are directly impacted by software engineering, including safety critical artifacts such as real-time controllers and logistics systems. In addition other countries such as Canada require licensing of software engineers.
In July 2007, a group of stakeholder organizations including members of NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers), IEEE, and TBPE (Texas Board of Professional Engineers) established the Software Engineering Licensure Consortium (SELC.) SELC developed a software engineering licensure needs document that was distributed to licensing boards. It also conducted a survey to determine need and interest in establishing a software engineering licensure path.
What comes next? The next phase is known as a Professional Activities and Knowledge Study (PAKS). The PAKS process will include the development of surveys and meetings with licensed engineers who practice software engineering that will ultimately result in a specification of the content for the software engineering licensure examination. Once the specification is developed, a committee of software engineers is formed to develop examination questions under the oversight of NCEES. After NCEES receives and approves the committee’s software engineering PE examination, it will be each up to individual licensing boards whether they license software engineers in their state or territory.
Professional licensure for an engineering discipline is established by each U.S. jurisdiction at their discretion. The existence of the software engineering PE examination does not automatically mean that each jurisdiction will approve a software engineer license since each board makes such a decision based on the needs (and politics) of their individual jurisdictions.
Hopefully the PAKS process will only take a year or two and the resulting examination will be approved by NCEES without delay. Meanwhile software engineers should start canvasing their state engineering licensing boards to approve licenses in this discipline once the software engineering PE examination is available.