b Papa Dog's Blog: Software Engineers Aren't

Papa Dog's Blog

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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Software Engineers Aren't

Yes, yes, I’m looking forward to tonight’s grudge match between Acting President Blofeld and John Ritter. Or is that Acting President Vader? Which movie villain do you think most closely resembles the Acting President? Maybe it’s Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Change the wheelchair to a pacemaker and you have exactly the same grasping old plutocrat – “a warped, frustrated old man.” Well, whichever casting you prefer, my fantasies about tonight’s debate remain doggedly Capraesque: the idealistic young lawyer confronts the crooked politician/industrial tycoon and exposes his evil to the world. I know it’s more likely to be bullshit pattycake soundbites, but until the thing airs I can dream.

But on an entirely different note – Some years back, I was talking to an acquaintance at a party and made some casually disparaging remark about engineers (I work at an engineering firm). This casual acquaintance immediately piped up “I’m an engineer!” I looked at him, with his lenses even thicker than mine, his rabbity buckteeth, and his bulging Adam’s apple. Even if I didn’t already know what he did for a living, I could have told at a glance that this young Bill Gates was not any sort of engineer. He was a computer programmer. Okay, I'm indulging in outdated sterotypes and will gleefully continue to do so throughout this post, but let’s be clear: a software engineer isn’t. If you drive a train, you’re one kind of engineer. If you help design and build bridges and buildings and tunnels and so forth, you’re another kind of engineer. If you string together code for a program to calculate actuarial statistics, then you’re a computer fucking programmer. If your job doesn’t involve either hauling freight or making calculations using real-world units like feet and pounds, you’re not an engineer.

I’d like to know when and why it was that computer programmers started referring to themselves as “software engineers.” I have a theory, of course. I believe that in the early 80s or so some programmer more socially adroit than his peers noticed that when he introduced himself to women as a computer programmer, they tended to roll their eyes and leave. I’m not saying that’s fair on the part of the woman and hell, it’s just a theory, but my guess is that this early programmer decided that if he was ever going to get laid, he’d have to start calling himself something else. “Computer” had to go – people knew what that meant. But “software” – now that was an unfamiliar and exotic term with vaguely sensual connotations. But software what? Standing by itself, the term would sound like he couldn’t get an erection. A strongly masculine noun was indicated, something that would advertise his mastery over the software, and by implication any woman lucky enough to come home with him to his parents’ basement. “Software neurosurgeon” would probably entice the ladies, but he might get in trouble if he ever happened to be at the scene of a medical emergency. “Software fighter pilot” would probably eventually get him beaten up. “Software cowboy” would be just too transparent. Same with “software fireman.” “Software lawyer?” Tempting, but difficult to justify linguistically. My guess is it came down to a choice between “software dentist” and “software engineer,” and I’d have to say that he made the right choice.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a computer programmer. When I started at my current job, I was given the title Software Engineer, just like all the other programmers in the company. After a couple of years, the company changed all our titles. I think it was due, in part, to the engineers society getting uppity about people calling themselves engineers, when they didn't actually have an engineering degree. Anyways, now my title is Software Designer or something like that. I don't remember, because they didn't give us new business cards.

paul Anonymous

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you call the guy who designs the train engines?

10:03 PM  

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