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I recognize that certain types of engineering disciplines are very heavily regulated. As I understand, these types of engineering have a legal definition that requires licensure, without which one cannot claim to be an engineer in that discipline. For example, someone with training in civil engineering can't call themselves a mechanical engineer without obtaining a license to practice civil engineering. This licensure requirement is intended to promote the health, safety, and well-being of the general public.

Do software engineers need a license, or can I call myself a software engineer right after graduation?

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  • This is very much dependent on what state you are practicing in. For example in Texas you need to pass a PE (which I don't think exists for SE) to call yourself an "engineer". My official title is Software Engineer (and I don't have a license) in another state.
    – Ron Beyer
    Jun 29, 2020 at 20:24
  • @RonBeyer: Well, I'm speaking in general for the purposes of this question. in Texas, though, I'd need a license that doesn't exist in order to call myself an engineer?
    – moonman239
    Jun 29, 2020 at 20:32
  • Yes, and the "Texas Board of Professional Engineers" isn't shy about sending cease-and-desist letters to SE's and CE's stressing that point. Not only that, but it's technically a $3000 per day fine for continuing to use the title.
    – Ron Beyer
    Jun 29, 2020 at 20:34
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    @IñakiViggers In Texas it doesn't matter (I worked there for 6 years as an "engineer" but couldn't be called one). In TX, if you want to hold yourself out as an "engineer", regardless of what type of engineering, you must have a PE license. There may be some recent loopholes with using the term "engineer" in your title as long as you don't provide engineering services outside the company. It's overly restrictive law reaching back to an accident in 1937 that killed 300 students and teachers, CE's and SE's weren't on the radar then, so the law was broadly written (and applied).
    – Ron Beyer
    Jun 29, 2020 at 21:50
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    @MontanaBurr Texas is one of the most restrictive states in the union in the terms of the title "engineer". You can read about the exemptions here, page 4 and see if it would apply. For example if you work for a company as a "software engineer" that might be OK, but if you hold yourself out to the public as a "software engineer" that may be prohibited under TX law.
    – Ron Beyer
    Jun 29, 2020 at 22:03

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There is no general answer: it's a state-by-state question. Texas Occupations Code 1001.301(b) says that

a person may not, unless the person holds a license issued under this chapter, directly or indirectly use or cause to be used as a professional, business, or commercial identification, title, name, representation, claim, asset, or means of advantage or benefit any of, or a variation or abbreviation of, the following terms:

(1) “engineer”

etc. You cannot call yourself that, in Texas. Subsection (f) provides for an exemption:

Notwithstanding the other provisions of this chapter, a regular employee of a business entity who is engaged in engineering activities but is exempt from the licensing requirements of this chapter under Sections 1001.057 (Employee of Private Corporation or Business Entity) or 1001.058 (Employee of Certain Utilities or Affiliates) is not prohibited from using the term “engineer” on a business card, cover letter, or other form of correspondence that is made available to the public if the person does not:

(1) offer to the public to perform engineering services; or

(2) use the title in any context outside the scope of the exemption in a manner that represents an ability or willingness to perform engineering services or make an engineering judgment requiring a licensed professional engineer.

1001.057 does allow an exception for "products manufactured by the entity", which under the law includes computer software. Whether or not (1) and (2) apply to a given employee / business depends on what they do: you can't open up a code-writing shop for the public and use the term "engineer", but you can be a software engineer for Shell Oil.

In Washington, RCW 18.43.010 says that

it shall be unlawful for any person to practice or to offer to practice in this state, engineering or land surveying, as defined in the provisions of this chapter, or to use in connection with his or her name or otherwise assume, use, or advertise any title or description tending to convey the impression that he or she is a professional engineer or a land surveyor, unless such a person has been duly registered under the provisions of this chapter.

which is not as clear as Texas law (I would not have thought that a "software engineer" is a "professional engineer". The term "professional engineer" is defined in RCW 18.43.020 as

a person who, by reason of his or her special knowledge of the mathematical and physical sciences and the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design, acquired by professional education and practical experience, is qualified to practice engineering as defined in this section, as attested by his or her legal registration as a professional engineer.

Having kicked the can down the road a bit, "professional engineering" is defined as

any professional service or creative work requiring engineering education, training, and experience and the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences to such professional services or creative work as consultation, investigation, evaluation, planning, design, and supervision of construction for the purpose of assuring compliance with specifications and design, in connection with any public or private utilities, structures, buildings, machines, equipment, processes, works, or projects.

If "software engineering" is a kind of "professional engineering", you must register, and here are the requirements, which ultimately refers you to the PE Electrical and Computer exam, which includes EE-type stuff that probably few software engineers know, and some software-related stuff including general computer architecture that is also not general knowledge among computer programmers.

Judging from advertisements for "software engineer" position in Washington, jobs state qualifications as as having a degree and knowledge of software, but not possession of a license or being registered as a "professional engineer" (and the exams only happen twice a year so it's not a trivially satisfiable formality). Either there is a massive conspiracy to mislead applicant or scoff at the law or, more likely, software engineers in Washington are not considered to be "professional engineers". This includes huge numbers of jobs with Microsoft, which are open to students who are years from being able to satisfy the 8-year experience requirement.

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