Why the IT Industry Needs to Stop Ineptly Using the Terms “Architect” and “Engineer,” When They Are Neither

05/19/20


After spending the last few months finishing a book, “What the Hell is Architecture?” finally returns to its regularly scheduled time and channel. I am proud to present the tenth post for the Video + Blog series “What the Hell is Architecture?” A series that will present Case Studies, Code Commentaries, How-To Videos, and anything else that comes to mind to try and get the word out on what Architecture, Engineering and Construction ACTUALLY is. (Something the industry has done a poor job of enlightening the public on.)

After close to a year of meeting new clients and speaking with quite a few people every week, two topics of conversation are routinely brought up that lead to this post’s creation.

  • “I didn’t know Architects were that involved in a project” or “I didn’t know Architects did BLANK.” (There are a million things people don’t know that we do, besides drawing Floor Plans.)
  • “I know someone who is an Architect or Engineer” …where I am then told about someone in an IT or computer related profession. (That happens much more than you may imagine.)

That last point is what we are going to talk about today. The misuse of the terms “Architect” and “Engineer” are not at all a new controversial topic. However, as time goes on it seems one field is further abusing both terms to an alarming degree; the field of Computer, Programming, Software or IT. (Information Technology)

The fact that it is getting worse, and that ANY Architect or Engineer you speak with will gladly (and angrily) explain all the reasons why this is a problem, only makes it more confusing because nothing is being done to correct this. Worst of all, speak to any professional in the computer realm about this issue and they will simply dismiss it as not a big deal, or more likely become defensive as more and more people are handed these erroneous job titles. But if you stick with me for a few paragraphs, you can hopefully see that I am not trying to talk down to anyone in that field. I am advocating that these terms need to stop being used not only for the benefit of our profession, (Architecture and Engineering) but for the benefit of their profession (IT and Computer) as well.


Nobody Is Mixing the Two Up, But the Damage is Still Being Done

I am aware that nobody is accidentally asking an Architect to write computer code or asking a “Software Architect” to design a new home. But the task of creating a safe and functional building or writing computer code require some serious knowledge and professionalism, yet the constant creation and “mix and match” attitude of job titles is only muddling people’s perceptions of either career.


The Dilution of a Difficult Word to “Earn”

This never sparks much interest from anyone hearing there are “Building Architects” and “Software Architects,” unless its someone in the Construction realm, to which case they will have A LOT to say…Or in a case like mine type up an entire post to vent the frustration to the internet.

As I have had to explain to MANY people, the initials I place after my name (or any Architect) are not simply for decoration. I had to earn my Architectural license to get those, and while it explains briefly in my book on what it takes to become a licensed Architect, we will briefly list the requirements below:

  • Earn an accredited degree from an NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) approved school.
  • Complete the AXP (Architectural Experience Program) by completing hundreds of hours in each category of Architectural Knowledge and having the experience reviewed and approved. Each state is different, but New York required at least three years of experience with a master’s degree.
  • Study for and Pass all SIX of the Architectural Registration Exams (ARE) in a certain time period.
  • Earn Continuing Education credits every year to maintain your license.
  • Apply and protect your License and Architectural Stamp.
  • Prove every year you deserve to keep your License and Stamp.

Becoming an Engineer is a very similar process, but with a few differences. I’ll leave you to find an angry Engineer’s Blog to explain them, as I am not an Engineer.


Strict Enforcement for Us, Blind Indifference for Them

Many people tend to overlook this as just an issue that us petty Architect and Engineers need to get over. While there are those in the field that have developed a cynical and angry demeanor, it’s not simply arrogance that forces our outcry against others using the terms “Architect” and “Engineer” in job titles…its legal standards that WE were forced to uphold, but apparently not others.

At the age of 28, I had a Masters Degree in Architecture, a few years of experience with multiple firms, and had even worked on multi-million dollar projects, yet every email I sent to people had the job title “Intern Architect” in my email signature…and quite often I had to explain to others that while I was an “Intern” I was working full time, knew what I was doing, and did not have to fetch anyone their coffee.

Did this irritate me? EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. But I never complained, certainly not because I was patient…Because every state has LEGAL terms that can be used for unlicensed Architects and I literally had no choice. Architects and Engineers have an ethical and legal obligation to protect the Health, Safety and Welfare of the public, and therefore it must be clear to the public who has earned the knowledge and expertise to do that.

But if you were to go onto a popular job postings website and type in the word “Architect,” (which I did do while writing this to prove a point) below are the first ten positions that show up:

  • E-Commerce Senior Web Architect
    • The stricter set of job titles and rules I am proposing would negate the need for three descriptors in a job title. As well as bolting on the term “Architect” to make it more official.
  • Controls Engineer III – Process Architect
    • This job title somehow incorrectly steals both the “Architect” and “Engineer” job title. If this was an attempt to make an impressive business card, it does the opposite.
  • Business Architect
    • This isn’t even a culprit from the software realm, proving the rampant growth of this problem into other fields as well.
  • Architectural Intern
    • This was actually a correct title for an unlicensed Architect position. (Hooray for one out of ten!)
  • Senior IT Architect
    • The term “Architect” was often used to project authority, but now it no longer does that, so more unnecessary terms of seniority are bolted on these titles.
  • Solution Architect
    • This job description was even convoluted for a software position, mainly asking for someone who can solve problems…Which I imagine every job position requires, so why is it considered “Architectural?”
  • Design Architect
    • While this position was in an Architectural firm, the description itself was not for a Licensed Architect, which makes this an invalid title even in the field of construction.
  • Cybersecurity Architect
    • Often, companies use the term “Architect” to describe someone who is responsible to focus on a single aspect of a company or project, in this example the cybersecurity of the company. Architects are never able to single mindedly sit on one task, therefore its odd that this term is misused this way.
  • Systems Architect
    • Probably one of the first titles to start misusing the term “Architect.” While it was reserved for people overseeing a team, it no longer is even saved for that. (This position was for someone who works under quite a few levels of supervisors.)
  • .NET Architect
    • Many companies are beginning to use the “Architect” term for specific software, systems or specific processes, further diluting the term “Architect.”

Three things are very troubling observations from this list. First, only two of the ten positions are Architects in the sense of design and construction. Second, one of those two “Real Architect” positions are an invalid job title, and subject for scrutiny. Third, the computer and IT world used to save the incorrect “Architect” job titles for positions of seniority or overview of a company, whereas now it seems any position in the field of computers has the term “Architect” slapped onto it…one position on this list pulls double duty with a job title of “Engineer” AND “Architect.


Our Buildings Can Harm People…But So Can Software

If it occasionally sounds as though Architects and Engineers are taking it too personal about this incorrect usage of job titles, its because most of us do. Our professional organizations have a litany of strict oversight and enforcement on us in terms of protecting the public, yet there is NO such protection to the public for the individuals in the IT realm.

I would argue there needs to be just as much legal and professional overview of these same individuals. The argument has often been made to me that Architects and Engineers design structures that house hundreds, if not thousands of people, and a failure or mistake could kill them all…This is absolutely true. But I would argue that someone working in the Coding or Software realm is working on things that can be just as dangerous. A failed structural beam can collapse in a hospital and kill quite a few people, but a computer program monitoring any one of systems in that same hospital is posing just as much of a threat if not handled by a professional who is liable.

There needs to be as much difficulty in becoming a “Licensed” software or computer individual. I assume I don’t need to explain to anyone that the college degree required for any position in no way prepares that individual for the world outside academia. Interning, proving competence and experience, and strict examination and practicing is just as necessary for the field of IT and computer programming as it is for Architects and Engineers.


They Needs to A Job Title, Just Not Ours

An argument often presented to me, (and I assume will be presented once I post this) is that there are certifications and processes for stricter regulation in the future or even being tested now. While this is a great start, its exactly just that…a start. There needs to be more than a certification, there needs to be a rigorous process to test, prepare and keep IT professionals LIABLE.

Liable was placed in all caps on purpose, it is what truly separates an Architect or Engineer professional from someone who is not licensed. Expertise and Knowledge is very important, but when an Architect or Engineer place their stamp and seal on a drawing, they aren’t just proving they know what they are doing…they are literally accepting responsibility and liability for that project for a VERY LONG TIME. (Varies state by state.)

If someone wants the prestige and authority of calling themselves an Architect, they must accept the legal vulnerability and liability that comes with the title as well.

Sadly, nobody is doing so when they use our job titles, because this framework and professional oversight doesn’t exist yet, or is being blatantly ignored.

Before anyone misinterprets me, let me be clear…Even if this rigorous licensing process is created, and the same legal and ethical oversights and obligations are placed on IT professionals, they still need to stop referring to themselves as “Architects” and “Engineers.” They need their own titles and language for recognition.

Ask any Architect to review job titles of any company and they will be able to tell you what the experience level and overall hierarchy is, regardless of firms. Even the general public will slowly understand who is licensed and who is not. The same can NOT be said of the IT and computer world, as it is increasingly clear that every company just makes up better sounding titles to one up each other.

To really project the authority and expertise they are trying to conjure by stealing the terms “Architect” and “Engineer,” the IT industry needs to create and enforce their own hierarchy of job titles and requirements. By creating this framework of rules and oversight, AS WELL AS the creation of industry specific job titles and positions, these job titles will hold significantly more weight and value, which will create the value and authority that was initially trying to be captured by incorrectly using other industries’ terms and titles. 


Closing

I hope you were able to read this and not simply dismiss it as petty jealousy of IT professionals who didn’t go through what we had to but get to have our titles AND still somehow make more money. (May be projecting here, I am aware.)

What needs to be taken seriously however, is that anyone with a job title of “Architect” or “Engineer” but is not licensed, is neither. This relates to any field as well; it is terrifying how many people call me when the previous person they hired was clearly not prepared for their house and illegally sold themselves as an “Architect.” While the use of our enforced titles in the software realm is often disregarded as annoying, I will argue that it is actually harming both fields and NEEDS to be dealt with.

If you work in the computer or IT field, you need to project your expertise and authority…But ineptly slapping the terms “Architect” or “Engineer” is actually doing the opposite. Stricter “Licensing” is required, and a corresponding set of titles, terms, rules and professional oversight is just as necessary and will create significantly clearer job titles.

If you feel I missed the mark or am misinformed on any aspect of what I wrote, please let me know. If you completely disagree, or have some harsh counterarguments to anything I say, I want to hear that too.

If you did enjoy the post or have any ideas or questions you would like to see or hear about in the upcoming posts and videos in this series, please let me know that as well.


Thank you for taking the time to listen and have a great day.

  • Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM
  • Principal – Architect

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<strong>Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM</strong>
Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM

Bryan Toepfer is the Principal Architect and founder of TOEPFER Architecture, PLLC, an Architecture firm specializing in Residential Design, Construction and Virtual Reality modeling.

Taking his philosophy of the importance of education to heart, he guide clients through the process of Design and Construction with each project. He runs a blog titled “What the Hell is Architecture?” with the goal of sharing with others the many aspects of Architecture. He also coaches Intern Architects studying for their Architectural License exams, as well as teaches at a local University.

He lives in Rochester, New York with his wife, two dogs and two cats.


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