Court sides with tech companies in 'software engineer' terminology dispute

The ruling comes the same week as the government introduced new legislation loosening the rules around use of the title

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An Edmonton judge has sided with two tech companies over Alberta’s professional engineering regulator in a dispute over the use of the term “software engineer,” in a ruling that echoes government legislation introduced earlier in the week.

In September, the Council of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) sought an injunction against Jobber and iStock, who it claimed had breached the province’s Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act (EPGA) by using the term “software engineer” in job advertisements.

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The companies argued that the terminology was widely understood to be distinct from other types of engineering regulated by APEGA including civil, mechanical, electrical, among others.

In a ruling published Thursday, Court of King’s Bench Justice John Little dismissed APEGA’s application, finding “there is no property in the title ‘software engineer.’ ”

“I find that the respondents’ employees who use the title “software engineer” and related titles are not practicing engineering as that term is properly interpreted,” Little’s ruling reads.

“I find that there is no clear breach of the EGPA which contains some element of possible harm to the public that would justify a statutory injunction.”

Little wrote that APEGA “has no monopoly on the use of the word ‘engineer’ ” and that the term may refer to “a diversity of occupations and work.”

The ruling recounts how when iStock was purchased by American company Getty Images, there was resentment among Canadian workers who were titled as “software developers” which was seen internally as being of a lower rank and having less autonomy than those titled as “software engineers.”

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APEGA had argued employees of the companies were incorrectly using the title, and cited its obligation to protect the public from the “unauthorized practice of engineering” that could cause public harm in areas such as avionics and nuclear energy.

Little disagreed with that position within the context of the two respondent companies.

“It is difficult to imagine any catastrophic consequences from the failure of software used by customers of Jobber or iStock,” he wrote.

“There is no reasonable expectation of harm.”

In a written statement, APEGA indicated it was reviewing the court’s ruling before deciding on future action.

“Public safety is APEGA’s top priority, and we will continue to use our regulatory tools to ensure engineering is only done by licensed individuals and companies.”

The ruling comes the same week as the Alberta government introduced new legislation that relaxes the rules around the use of the term.

Bill 7, the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Amendments 2023 Act, proposes to allow companies to use the title of “software engineer” in job postings in an effort the government claims will help attract and retain tech workers.

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In introducing the bill, Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney said, “it was very clear this was a change the tech sector wanted to see.”

Engineers Canada, a national group that worked on behalf of the provincial and territorial associations that regulate engineering practice, issued its own statement in reaction to the new bill.

“It is more important than ever that the public be assured that those responsible for designing critical technologies … can be held accountable for unskilled practices or unethical behaviour through a professional code of conduct and disciplinary actions,” it reads.

Chanpreet Singh, a new software engineer grad from the University of Alberta, said the change struck a “disheartening blow” to students who had committed to pursuing software engineering as a career.

“Our qualifications, the value of our education, and the safety of the public are at stake.”

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