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Software Engineering Certification in Today’s Environment

By Susan K. Land, PH.D. and Sorel Reisman, Ph.D.

How Certification Programs Can Help

Professional knowledge-based certification programs exist or can be created for all experience levels, from entry-level to professional to mastery (or specialized). In today’s software industry, the certification programs are primarily vendor specific (for example, Microsoft or Oracle) or domain specific (for example, focused on quality). We need certifications that help computing professionals demonstrate proficiencies across the breadth of software engineering practices.

Certification’s Evolution

For any profession, certification starts with a body of knowledge that evolves over time. From that, we must develop a curriculum, establish accreditation criteria, define competencies, develop professional programs, and establish standards. We also need to establish a code of ethics to ensure accountability in that profession.

From all of this, formal education emerges. Initial professional education is established, leading to skills development. At some point, this leads to certification or licensure (see the “Professional Licensure of Software Engineers” sidebar). Once these requirements have been met, full professional status is achieved. A decade ago, most of this did not exist for software engineering. Today, all the pieces are in place for formal certification in software engineering.

The Benefits

Software certification can benefit the software industry as a whole. It helps keep the industry competitive, because organizations have a continual need to keep their workforce proficient. Certification can also provide a baseline of fundamental knowledge that helps bridge the knowledge gap between what new college graduates bring to the job versus what companies require. It benefits employers and employees as well by demonstrating that the certificate holder has the necessary domain knowledge and can apply the recognized principles and practices of software engineering.

Certifications can also help employees gain recognition and increase their confidence as well as their client’s confidence in them. They also represent an investment in the certificate holder’s career—becoming and remaining certified requires a commitment to continued education and involvement in software engineering-related work and activities.

IEEE Computer Society Programs

The Computer Society currently has two certification programs: Certified Software Development Associate (CSDA, www.computer.org/portal/web/certification/csda), an entry-level certification aimed at new college graduates and practitioners with two years or less  experience, and Certified Software  Development Professional (CSDP, www.computer.org/portal/web/certification/csdp), targeted toward mid-level practitioners with four or more years’ experience. (For more information, email  certification@computer.org.)

Professional software engineers and developers with certifications can prove their ability to integrate software engineering principles and practices into the development process. By adding the CSDP credential to their resume, professionals demonstrate knowledge of and proficiency with best practices in software development and engineering. They can connect with a network of software engineering professionals, all dedicated to advancing the profession, and prove that they are career-minded and determined to expand their knowledge and increase their responsibilities.

Unlike product- or domain-specific certifications, the Computer Society programs measure a practitioner’s fundamental knowledge in key areas such as software design, construction, and testing. The foundation for the Computer Society certification programs is the Guide to the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (www.computer.org/portal/web/swebok), used in many college programs during courseware development. A workforce that understands and can apply the SWEBOK principles and practices can design more robust software, minimize costs, shorten development times, and reduce the number of defects.SWEBOK is internationally endorsed via ISO/IEC 19759 and is now the basis for software engineering certifications via ISO/IEC 24773. The CSDA and CSDP certifications are the only industry certifications that conform to ISO/IEC 24773. The CSDP credential is the only credential that fulfills the three critical components of professional certification: examination-based testing demonstrating mastery of a body of knowledge (BOK); extensive experience in the performance of the work or profession being certified, and continuing professional education, measured and relevant to the BOK.


Professional Licensure of Software Engineers

By Phillip A. Laplante, Penn State University

The following 10 states have indicated that they’ll soon require licensure for software engineers working on software systems that can affect public health, safety, and welfare: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Software professionals working on such systems through government or corporate entities are likely to be exempted (as the entity assumes responsibility for any consequences of system failure), but individuals who offer engineering services directly to the public will need to be licensed. Other U.S. states and jurisdictions will likely follow suite and require licensure of software engineers within a few years.

Each state will phase in this requirement differently, but starting in 2013, a heretofore nonexistent path to licensure will be realized. (More information on the history of software engineering licensure appears elsewhere.1,2)

For professional licensure in any engineering discipline, state laws typically require:

  • an undergraduate degree in the discipline from an Accreditation Board for engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited program,

  • at least four years of relevant and increasingly responsible experience,

  • passing an exam in the fundamental principles of engineering (called the Fundamentals of engineering or FE exam),

  • passing a discipline-specific examination, called the Principles and Practices (P&P) examination.

Until recently, the only licensure component that was missing for software engineering was a P&P exam. However, the exam is currently under development and will be available in April 2013.

Different states provide certain exemptions and exceptions for these requirements. For example, many states allow for those with relevant experience but holding degrees in another discipline to be licensed. State laws also differ in terms of years of experience and alternate paths to licensure. However, the laws for software engineering licensure have yet to be written for most states. Therefore, an ad hoc group of individuals, including members of the IEEE Computer  society Professional Activities Board, IEEE-USA, the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, and the National Society of Professional Engineers are developing  a “model” law for use by state boards in crafting licensure laws for professional software engineers.

Although no direct relationship exists between the IEEE Computer society Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP) credential and licensure, there are significant similarities. The CSDP is built on top of the Guide to the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK), while the P&P examination is built on a separately developed body of knowledge that focuses specifically on systems that directly affect the public’s health, safety, and welfare. However, the SWEBOK Guide and P&P exam body of knowledge have significant overlap. Some states could operationalize these similarities in their licensure laws.

For example, some states might count CSDP certification toward years of experience, just as many states count graduate education. The exams are structured differently, though. The CSDP examination is a four-hour closed-book exam with 180 questions, while the P&P exam is an open book, eight-hour exam with 80 questions. Yet both are structured as multiple choice and cover many of the same areas based on their respective bodies of knowledge, so success on one exam could be a predictor of success on the other. As an international organization, the IEEE Computer Society has taken a neutral stance on requiring licensure (as opposed to certification) in the United States, but it has provided significant support for test development activity, including financing and volunteer experts.

If you’re considering professional licensure and you have the required educational background, you should probably prepare to take the FE exam, which can be taken any time after graduation. You can’t take the P&P exam (available next year) until you’ve passed the FE exam and have the relevant years of experience. However, before you do anything, you should get full information on licensure requirements and procedures from your state Board of Professional Engineering.


1. P. Laplante and M. Thornton, “When do software systems need to be engineered,” Today’s Engineer, July 2011; www.todaysengineer.org/2011/Jul/licensure.asp.

2. M. Thornton and P. Laplante, “Update on software engineering Licensure Initiative,” Today’s Engineer, reprinted in IEEE-USA in ACTION, 10 dec. 2010, pp. 7–8.


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


Ed. Note: This article is based on "Software Engineering Certification in Today’s Environment," by Susan K. Land and Sorel Reisman, which appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of IT Pro.  © 2012 IEEE.

Susan Land is the lead for product engineering and Spiral 8.2 development activities supporting the US Missile Defense Agency Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communication Development Programs (C2BMC). She leads all product engineering activities to define, develop, and deliver a robust Battle Manager capability to the Ballistic Missile Defense System. She was president of the IEEE Computer Society in 2009. Contact her at susan.land@mda.mil.

Sorel Reisman is the managing director of the international, higher education consortium, MERLOT, a project within the California State University, Office of the Chancellor. He’s also a professor of information systems at California State University, Fullerton. His research interests include software engineering, digital libraries, and STEM education. Reisman received his PhD in computer applications from the University of Toronto. He’s a member of the IEEE Education Society and was president of the IEEE Computer Society in 2011. Contact him at sreisman@calstate.edu.

Phillip Laplante, Ph.D., P.E., CSDP, is a professor of software engineering at Penn State University’s School of Graduate Professional Studies in Malvern, Pennsylvania. He currently serves as chair of the software engineering licensure examination development committee and is a member of the IEEE-USA Licensure and Registration Committee.



Copyright © 2012 IEEE

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