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

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.