Young Engineers

Software Engineering PE Exam: A must for Software Engineers?

February 26, 2013

In a few short weeks the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) will administer the first PE exam for Software Engineering.

Unlike other engineering disciplines, software engineering has long been a mixed bag of self-taught, apprenticed, and college-educated professionals. This hodgepodge of engineering backgrounds, however, is something that the NCEES plans to change and standardize with the administration of the new Software Engineering PE exam.

From the Software Engineering PE Exam press release:

NCEES is preparing to launch its latest Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, which will be used by engineering licensing boards across the United States. NCEES will begin offering a PE exam in software engineering in April 2013. After that, the exam will be administered yearly…

Groups representing software engineers have long maintained that software engineering should be licensed because it is increasingly practiced in areas that reach into the everyday lives of the general public, such as traffic control systems and the electrical grid. An IEEE Computer Society survey of software engineers indicated that two-thirds of those employed in the industry support a licensure exam for their profession. “With software engineering crucial to so many engineering projects, it’s important to regulate its practice in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” said NCEES President, Dale Jans, P.E.

What is the Potential Impact on Software Engineers?

To gauge the potential impact of the new Software Engineering PE exam on the industry, we asked several hiring managers and professionals who routinely hire software engineers for their opinion on the exam’s impact. Interviewees include:

  • Brad Wilkening, President of DevMynd, an Agile Software Shop based in Chicago, IL. He has been programming software for over 20 years and has hired seven new software engineers in the past year alone. (Comments appear as Brad, DevMynd)
  • Mark Riffey of RescueMarketing has a BS in Computer Science with a minor in Industrial engineering from the University of Arkansas College of Engineering. In addition to his 27 years of experience in IT, development, and development management for independent software vendors, several of his professional customers are engineering firms. (Comments appear as Mark, RescueMarketing)
  • Phil Danne, the Engineering & Hardware Integration Lead of LivioConnect. On a mission to expand the company, Phil is scanning dozens of resumes a day and interviews several candidates each week. (Comments appear as Phil, LivioConnect)
  • Hussein Yahfoufi, the Senior Director of Technology & Corporate Services at OneRoof Energy, Inc, a solar financing company based in San Diego, CA. He currently has six software engineers on his team. (Comments appear as Hussein, OneRoof Energy)
  • Kelsey Champion is a Technical Recruiter for UDig, an IT and technical staffing firm with offices in Richmond and Virginia Beach, VA, Raleigh, NC and Washington DC. (Comments appear as Kelsey, UDig)

What importance do you think the PE Software Engineering exam will be to your business in the future?

  • “We will not be giving any credence to the PE Software Engineering exam. Those kinds of tests are instituted at companies that don’t have enough technical leadership to actually vett new engineers before hire. This happens more so at very large enterprise companies, typically implemented by middle managers that aren’t seeing good velocity on their projects.” –Brad, DevMynd
  • “More than 50% of my business revenue is software related, has been for a decade and I expect this to continue… That said, I don’t see this certification being of importance to my business, but I have no doubt that some (such as engineering firms and government agencies) will require it because they’re used to requiring (sometimes meaningless) certifications. Sometimes those things are used to provide evidence of things that the certification itself really doesn’t prove, much like a degree sometimes does. This certification may or may not be meaningless – I can’t yet say.  I find security certifications meaningful, but language specific ones usually are not – for my business needs. For us, the value varies depending on the certification and what is required to achieve it.” – Mark, RescueMarketing
  • “Professional certification helps to distinguish developers who have attained a defined level of competence and responsibility. These skills are extremely important for our software engineers.” – Phil, LivioConnect
  • “I don’t think the PE exam will have a big impact on us. We usually test candidates with development problems and critical thinking but its usually verbal and on the whiteboard during the interview versus a test before the interview.” – Hussein, OneRoof Energy
  • “The PE exam would be an important step in qualifying candidates. It will be nice to have the option to have licensed professionals in the field.” – Kelsey, UDig

Are you more likely to hire a software engineer who has passed this exam?

  • “We are only a 10-person company. We don’t intend on ever needing something like that. Potential employees come into our office and pair with us on real work that we are doing. It is also a good way for potential employees to see the high level of skill and aptitude that all of our engineers possess. This is a great motivator for them to want to work with us.” –Brad, DevMynd
  • “Very doubtful in this case. Tech skills are a fair part of software engineer hiring but there is no certification test available for “the right stuff”. The latter cannot usually be taught or changed in an individual, while the tech skills can almost always be learned.”  – Mark, RescueMarketing
  • “Yes, this certification would be preferred.” – Phil, LivioConnect
  • “I would pay attention to it and discuss it with the candidate but I won’t give it preferential treatment just yet. We will need to see how popular the exam gets and how accessible it is before making it a requirement or a “nice to have” on our job descriptions. We give preferential treatment for project managers that have a PMP but that’s because its become an industry standard and every PM knows about it. How many software engineers know about this test?” – Hussein, OneRoof Energy
  • “Although passing the exam would not be the only deciding factor in choosing one candidate over another, I think it could give candidates an advantage. The value of a candidate having this certification would directly relate to the position and the kind of sensitive materials they would be working with.” – Kelsey, UDig

Would you encourage your current software engineering staff to take this exam?

  • “Only if they were leaving my team and planning to get a job with an engineering firm or a government agency that required it. That said, if they wanted to take it, I wouldn’t discourage them from doing so.”  – Mark, RescueMarketing
  • “Yes, all software engineers would be encouraged to become certified.” – Phil, LivioConnect
  • “Probably not. We encourage and sometimes pay for training for our developers but we won’t require them to take this test.” – Hussein, OneRoof Energy
  • “Yes. I would encourage any Software Engineer to take this exam. As I mentioned, it will give them an advantage over equally qualified candidates. In addition, it shows interest in continual development of skills and knowledge as well as a degree of dedication toward their field.” – Kelsey, UDig

Bottom Line: What Is the Expected Impact?

The Software Engineering PE exam is so new it will take some time before it becomes the “nice-to-have,” much less a prerequisite, to software engineering jobs.

The startup community seems largely ambivalent about the Software Engineering PE exam (their premium is on “doers” and are less concerned with educational background and certifications). But the general consensus is that you can expect that this will be grandfathered in as a requirement with large enterprise-level employers, especially those that contract heavily in Space, Defense and with the government.

And speaking of government – if you want to be employed as a software engineer by either the federal government or a governmental agency in the future, you can expect this exam will almost certainly become a prerequisite.

If you’re interested in more information about the Software Engineering PE Exam, full details about the exam’s contents can be found here (.pdf): Software Engineering PE Exam Specifications

Photo Credit: Cbeck527