Tech leaders seek easing of rules around 'software engineer' designation

· The Pulse

A who's who of Edmonton's tech community is part of a push from the Canadian Council of Innovators (CCI) urging Premier Danielle Smith to "remove the regulatory red tape" that the group says threatens to stunt innovation in Alberta's tech sector.

But those responsible for regulating engineers say the rules are in place for a reason, and it's not right to benefit from the prestige of the term "engineer" without living up to the responsibilities attached to it.

The title "engineer" is restricted across Canada by various regulatory bodies. In Alberta, the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act sets out who can call themselves an engineer, and it establishes the legal power of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) to license, permit, and otherwise regulate the profession.

The CCI released an open letter to Smith on Oct. 14 charging that APEGA has "taken the aggressive position that software engineers must be regulated, and subject to onerous, restrictive, and unnecessary certification requirements."

Among the 60+ signatories to the letter is Sam Pillar, CEO of Jobber, whose company is facing legal action by APEGA for use of the term "software engineer" without belonging to the association.

"This regulatory red tape threatens to have a profound impact on the future of our company and ability to compete in a hyper-competitive talent market," Pillar told Taproot. "High-skilled workers are used to seeing the title 'software engineer,' because it is the long-established global standard title used by some of the largest and most desirable employers in the tech industry to describe the work of building software. If we are prevented from using these kinds of job titles, we cannot compete on a level playing field for talent."

Pillar's fellow signatories include founders such as Cory and Nicole Janssen of AltaML, Jeff Lawrence of Granify, and Michael Wilson of DrugBank; investors such as Kristina Milke of Sprout Fund, Zack Storms of Startup TNT, and Ray Muzyka of ThreshholdImpact; and leaders such as Cam Linke of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), Catherine Warren of Edmonton Unlimited, and Malcolm Bruce of Edmonton Global, among many others.

Gerard McDonald, the CEO of Engineers Canada, disagrees that the rules are needlessly restrictive. "It's not red tape. The title engineer is a protected title, that's protected in law, and it's been protected for over 100 years," he said.

Software companies "can hire whoever they want, they can pay them whatever they want, they can make their jobs as appealing as they want," he said. "But if they want to call these people engineers, they must be licensed and must be accountable for the work that they do."

Forrest Zeisler and Sam Pillar speak at an event

Jobber co-founders Forrest Zeisler and Sam Pillar speak at an event in 2019. Their company, which makes software for home-service businesses, is facing legal action from APEGA over the use of the term "software engineer." (Mack Male/Flickr)

To be able to legally call yourself an engineer, you must have an engineering degree, have four years of verified practice, and be licensed with the appropriate provincial regulator, requirements that exist, McDonald said, to protect the safety of the public.

APEGA's requirements are not unique in Canada, nor is its stance on "software engineer" or related terms.

In a letter from July 19, the 12 provincial and territorial engineering regulators agreed that the "use of 'software engineer', 'computer engineer' and related titles that prefix 'engineer' with IT‐related disciplines and practices, is prohibited in all provinces and territories in Canada, unless the individual is licensed as an engineer by the applicable Provincial or Territorial engineering regulator."

Other jurisdictions may agree on paper, but Alberta is the only province that is frequently intervening and threatening legal action when unlicensed developers or companies use the terms, said Benjamin Bergen, executive director of the CCI.

"This issue really is playing out with their aggressiveness in terms of regulating the term engineer and how it pertains to software engineer," Bergen said. "They have launched legal action, they threatened companies, and really made it uncomfortable for tech firms in the province to hire and find the best talent for roles ... And what makes this unique is that this is only happening in the province of Alberta. This isn't happening in other jurisdictions, where regulators are being so aggressive."

In terms of litigation and legal action related to software engineering, the Alberta body currently only has two cases, said Erum Afsar, director of enforcement with APEGA, who is based in Edmonton.

"And we don't just focus on the title of software engineer, we're doing title violations across industries," Afsar explained, noting that the body handles an average of about 500 cases per year.

She said the vast majority of APEGA interventions are what she calls administrative actions. "So that means we're sending letters, or we're having conversations with companies and individuals, and working together to get them into compliance, including companies in the IT industry."

The tech sector argues that the current regulatory framework limits the search for talent, which in turn limits innovation. CCI's member companies indicate that "software engineer" is more likely to come up in searches than "software developer," Bergen said.

"It is really the gold standard in terms of terminology. And it also attracts a higher quality of talent, because that's what most people want to be called."

Afsar doesn't doubt that this is true but suggested it's because there's a cachet to that title that comes from public trust in the profession – trust built on knowing someone calling themselves an engineer meets certain qualifications.

She does, however, question the claim that protecting the engineering title is hindering innovation in the province: "Look at how strong an economy that we've developed in Alberta, that's based on innovation and tech, whether that's for the oil and gas industry or et cetera. That's really what engineers do. Engineers are part of innovation, part of designing technology."

She added that APEGA has worked with large international companies such as Google's DeepMind to avoid regulatory issues without legal action, and that "there are international companies that are still coming to Alberta."

Given Smith's campaign commitments to cutting red tape, Bergen is cautiously optimistic that she will be receptive to CCI's concerns and is looking forward to scheduled meetings with the Alberta government.

The province is aware of the CCI's concerns, but APEGA has the legislative authority to protect the title, a spokesperson for Labour Minister Kaycee Madu told Postmedia. "We're encouraging them to work together to find an agreeable solution," press secretary Roy Dallmann said.