Archive for April, 2010

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

Friday, April 30th, 2010 Mike Ficco

Doctors and Engineers are two of the most respected occupations in our society.  While both are highly educated and highly intelligent, in my opinion there are far more differences between the two careers than similarities.  For example, an engineer may be expected to start with a blank sheet of paper and design a complicated system, but a doctor starts with an incredibly complicated system (the human body) and tries to figure out why it’s not working right.

Both groups can have substantial egos, but the working environment accommodates this very differently.  A doctor’s self-esteem may be regularly bolstered as numerous patients view him as a savior, but in some companies engineers’ self-esteem can be undermined every day by management attitudes and demands.

There are other significant differences in the working environment.  In the office of a private practitioner the word and will of the doctor is final.  Even in a large hospital doctors are rarely contradicted or overruled.  Doctors are mutually supportive and hesitate to criticize each other in public – perhaps for the purely practical reason of avoiding lawsuits.

In contrast, engineers rarely get to make visible decisions.  They can make dozens or hundreds of decision on which components to use and how to compose software.  However, the business and marketing groups make the decisions on visible issues like which bugs to fix, which features to implement, and when the product works well enough to ship.  In this sense, engineers are more like assembly line workers than doctors.  They are told what to do and often reminded to work harder.

With respect to safety and security, a rogue doctor can sicken or kill a few people by misdiagnosis or administration of inappropriate drugs.  Major damage is greatly limited by many safeguards and checks from insurance companies, federal and state authorities, and highly trained pharmacists who distribute the drugs.  In fact, there is an entire industry focused on, and making a great deal of money from, ensuring doctors act properly – or suing them if they don’t.

One bad or malicious programmer, on the other hand, can endanger hundreds, thousands, or more.  They can take down a power grid, disrupt stop lights, or simply do a bad job implementing automotive anti-lock brakes.

It is interesting that engineers have so little comparative power and authority yet can cause so much harm and damage.  Indeed, inappropriate or malicious use of a compiler can be far more dangerous to a much larger portion of society than could ever be endangered by any doctor not working on germ warfare.  One doesn’t even have to be a technical professional to acquire a compiler or similar tool.  Such tools give ANYONE the ability to hack into credit card records, banks, or the national defense network.  There are no checks and no safeguards on the usage of these tools.  The man on the street has unrestricted access to compilers and other highly dangerous software tools without demonstration of any need and without an authorization or “prescription” from a well-trained professional.

We have created a society that requires a doctor’s prescription for a great amount of the truly effective medicine (see my blog “Saving REAL Money on Healthcare“) but allows any untrained and unsupervised clown – perhaps with a criminal record – to acquire potentially far more dangerous computer equipment and tools.

Why is it, in general, doctors are the kings and queens of their domain but engineers simply follow orders handed down by the business group?  Why is it that medical students must serve an apprenticeship (internship) before they are allowed to practice medicine but most young engineers receive ad hoc on-the-job training from the (perhaps qualified) guy in the next cubicle?  Why is it that we are so well conditioned by our culture that the social structure I described seems normal and acceptable?

Perhaps when we can answer these questions we, the engineers, will finally be worthy of being as highly regarded as medical doctors.  Until then our masters will continue to tell us the bugs to fix and when we will finish.