On Engineers and Technicians

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The Software Engineering field is a liberal one with a relatively low barrier to entry. Formal education is valued less than hands-on experience but that tends to be difficult to accurately measure. The industry came up with various solutions to gauge a candidate’s skills, ranging from coding tests, whiteboard interview to showing their public work to asking the candidate for a work portfolio. Programming is also an art, isn’t it?

Having been on both sides of the interview table, I’ve been long preoccupied with finding the right fit for the job at stake. Here’s a simple method that helps me qualify the candidates’ skills by using the traditional technical industries distinction between technician and engineer.
Wikipedia defines a technician as follows:

A technician is a worker in a field of technology who is proficient in the relevant skills and techniques, with a relatively practical understanding of the theoretical principles.

and for engineer:

Engineers design materials, structures, and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost.
[…]
A professional engineer is competent by virtue of his/her fundamental education and training to apply the scientific method and outlook to the analysis and solution of engineering problems. He/she is able to assume personal responsibility for the development and application of engineering science and knowledge, notably in research, design, construction, manufacturing, superintending, managing and in the education of the engineer.

There is a major difference between the skills used by a electrician mounting or fixing your broken wall plug (who cares if it’s using AC and not DC?) and the skills needed by the engineer who designed it. Consequently, there is a similar difference between someone hacking together a website with Nginx and another who designs the browser that runs that website or the one devising the HTTP specification used by both the browser and the Nginx-driven website.

Hints how to distinguish a software technician from a software engineer:
– A technician will tend to use a restricted set of tools. An engineer knows what tool to use to get the job done: programming language choice, databases, frameworks, third party libraries, etc.
– An engineer’s work is articulate, symmetric and consistent while striving to address all other concerns like regulation, safety and cost (sic).
– An engineer follows the idioms of the language or framework she’s using. This goes beyond personal coding style and into leveraging language constructs and recognizable patterns that best fit the solution.
– Ask the five whys when inquiring about a technical detail. Engineers know how to explain their architectural, design as well as implementation choices. A technician will get a certain job done but will not be able to explain the design decisions behind the building blocks he’s using.
– An engineer’s work is long lasting with the architectural intent surviving refactorings and indeed guiding the evolution of a system.

The seniority scale can be applied to both trades. A Sr. Engineer masters the discipline by making the right architecture, design and implementation choices given both small and large scale systems. A senior technician will be able to quickly solve a difficult local problem with the tools they have but they recognize they need the help of an engineer to correctly design complex systems.

Lastly, both trades have virtues and technology companies need both skill sets just the same a hospital needs both nurses and doctors to function.

Images courtesy cogdog jimmywayne via Flickr.

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