Book Review: Citizen Engineer

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for free from the
publisher as part of the PyATL Book Club.

The goal of Citizen Engineer, from Prentice Hall/Pearson Education,
is to awaken the socially responsible engineer in each of us. The
topics covered range from the environmental impact of product design
to the sociopolitical ramifications of intellectual property
law. Authors David Douglas (Senior VP of Cloud Computing, Sun), Greg
Papadopoulos (CTO and Executive VP of R&D, Sun), and John Boutelle
(freelance writer) share their experience in all of these areas to
create a thought-provoking introductory guide to the issues of modern
engineering practice.

Citizen Engineers are techno-responsible, environmentally
responsible, economically responsible, socially responsible
participants in the engineering community.

The authors begin by covering the background of what they call the
“Citizen Engineer” and why the issues are important. The premise of
the book is that it is no longer sufficient for engineers to work in
isolation in their labs. We must engage with practitioners of other
disciplines to bridge the gap between science and society. This is not
a new responsibility, and the role of “citizen engineer” is not new.
However, it is expanding as engineers have an ever greater need to
understand a broader range of fields to do their job well. Even if the
engineer doesn’t practice intellectual property law or environmental
science, they need to be familiar with the issues involved in order to
collaborate effectively.

They start the discussion by listing several external driving forces
that are changing the economics of the way good engineering is being
done. These include the environment, corporate social responsibility,
fraud and security concerns, privacy, digital goods and intellectual
property issues, and government regulation in all of those areas. The
book touches on each of these areas in turn.

Engineers who were once preoccupied with Moore’s Law are now dealing
with more laws…

Part 2 of the book is devoted to environmental issues and making the
case that the environment is something engineers can, should, and are
thinking about. Environmental impact analysis is complicated by many
variables and the fact that reducing impact in one area can increase it
in others. The authors approach the problem pragmatically. They start by
prioritizing changes based on the biggest impact, and ensuring that
impact is studied over the full life-cycle of the product. They also
point out that sustainability issues need to be considered “at scale” to
expose the true impact of small changes. For example, billions of people
use consumer products such as light bulbs, meaning even seemingly tiny
incremental improvements in efficiency or sustainability can have
sweeping global impact in energy consumption, materials used, and
natural resources consumed. Even a change to reduce the packaging weight
of a product will reduce the amount of fuel needed for shipping and
distribution, and depending on the scale that impact can be as big or
bigger than a change directly to the product itself.

… IT equipment often consumes less than half the power used in a
typical data center.

A little closer to home, the authors refer to research that says less
than half of the power used by a typical data center goes into
computing. The rest is lost as heat waste in the conversion to different
power levels, or is used to keep the computers cool. There is research
being done into more efficient cooling techniques, consolidation of
systems through virtualization, and alternative power setups with higher
voltage. Changing the hardware is not the only path to reducing power
consumption, though. More efficient code, and more efficient execution
of that code, provides opportunities for using less hardware in the
first place. That’s food for thought the next time you put off
optimization by saying, “cycles are cheap”.

Intellectual property laws are crafted to protect inventors and
creators and the companies that market their works.

Part 3 is titled “Intellectual Responsibility” and covers the
fundamentals of intellectual property law, including copyright,
trademark, and patents. I found the definitions of the IP terms such as
patent, copyright, and trademark in this section particularly helpful
for clarifying the roles each of those tools has in IP generally and
software specifically. I also like the way the authors separated the
technical background material from their own opinions on the subject.
Not everyone will agree with all of their conclusions, but the
delineation between fact and opinion avoids clouding the issue.

Chapter 13 digs into the basic types of open source licenses and the
decisions a software developer needs to make when deciding how to
license their creations. They also talk about forms of open licenses
for non-software products, such as Creative Commons. The authors have
copyrighted their book under a Creative Commons license (BY-NC-SA
3.0), and have downloadable copies of chapters available online at
http://citizenengineer.org/.

The final section of the book, “Bringing it to Life”, talks about how
to apply some of the ideas from earlier chapters immediately, as well
as changes that are being made in engineering training so responsible
engineering practices are more central in future work. They talk about
cross-discipline training in law and environmental science and the
curriculum changes being tested in major universities. The book then
wraps up with examples from a selection of success stories from around
the world.

I recommend Citizen Engineer for engineers from all fields who
want a better understanding of some of the issues that are driving
changes in engineering practices. The clear and concise writing style
makes the book an easy read, without glossing over any difficult
topics. It does not attempt to provide an exhaustive reference
manual, but does give plenty of other resources for future research
and reading.