In My Opinion: Legislation for Software Developer

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The year is 1991. You are sitting at your desk planning the strategy for your next program. You pick up a pen and start to code. Then, suddenly the door opens and two people approach you. "Jane Doe, we are with the Police Department, we understand you are programming without a license. You have the right to remain silent...." Sound unrealistic? It might not if a programmer certification bill passes in New Jersey.

For those of you who have not heard, a bill known as A-4414 is aimed primarily at licensing people or firms that provide software and services. The bill proposes that software designers in New Jersey be licensed and regulated by a newly created state board of software designers. Programmers would have to meet educational or work-related experience standards and be required to pass a board-prepared test. Licenses would be valid for a two- year period and renewable at a currently undetermined fee. The proposed Software Designers Licensing Act was introduced in the New Jersey assembly on January 24, 1991 by assemblywoman Barbara Kalik. A-4414 passed the assembly in June and it is awaiting a hearing by a state senate committee this fall.

Although the originators of the bill intended for it to ensure that the person or firm doing the programming is reputable, the bill has caused mass controversy in the computer industry. The wording of A-4414 is quite open in some areas in that it could encompass any type of firm with an MIS department. The bill, which states, "Software designing means the process of creating software systems and applies to techniques that reduce software cost and complexity while increasing reliability and modifiability, which includes but is not limited to the elements of requirements, design specification, implementation testing and validation, operation and maintenance and software management..." leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

My question is "Why?" With an industry that is forever changing, how can you test someone? Will there be a test for each system, language or application being used? Those programmers with an educational background recognized by the board can bypass the written exam. Whereas those with no educational credentials will have to show previous work-related experience for a sufficient period of time and take a written exam covering theory, procedure and any other subject deemed necessary by the board. This could be interesting. The first set of candidates can take the written exam...oops!! material on the market, time to change the subjects on the written test again. There is nothing worse than inconsistency in testing.

Also, how can someone tell you how long you need to be in the field to have equivalent experience? You can work for a company and learn very little or you can learn a lot. You only get out as much as you are willing to put in. So someone with only six months on the job can have more experience than someone with a year or more.

Now for the big question in everyone's mind. Who will pay the licensing fees? A-4414 is right there telling us, "A temporary license shall be available to an applicant upon initial application for examination. A person holding a temporary license may practice software designing only under the direct supervision of a licensed software designer." This can be interpreted a number of ways. Will your firm carry a license to cover all of its MIS department? Or, will your company require each MIS employee to pay for an individual license? This will affect the company as well as the employee. The employee is either paying the undetermined fee every two years or the company will incur more expense if it covers fees for its employees. Will the company rate be one flat fee or determined by the number of data processing personnel? What effect will this have on hiring? Will firms hire only candidates who are licensed? Or, will this become a new employee benefit? Next year, not only will companies provide medical, dental, pension and 401K plans, they might offer programmer licensing.

The board also has the right to revoke licenses. For those of you working for consulting firms or software houses, it doesn't take much to figure out that if your firm's license is revoked and you don't have a license, and your company can't write contracts because they are not won't be able to program without breaking the law.

We need to think about the programmers and firms in our own area. If New Jersey programmers need to be licensed, this could push companies to purchase services from out of state--lessening job availability. And, what about purchasing services out of state? Will these firms have to be licensed to sell and service packages in New Jersey? This is not yet clear.

Previous attempts have been made at licensing. Over the past several years, newsletters have supported computer industry certification by voluntary examination. This probably looks impressive on a resume, but we don't hear much about certification anymore.

With other more important issues, I think it's time to leave things as they are. Like the old saying goes, "If something is working right, don't go and change it!"