April 23,1998

Software engineering program ready to go

by Stephanie Whittaker

Dean Nabil Esmail uses the metaphor of cats and dogs to describe the uneasy relationship of engineers and computer scientists in universities. "In many universities, these two groups fight like cats and dogs," he said.

But not at Concordia. In January 1999, the University will admit the first group of applicants to a new program called "software engineering." The program will bring the dogs and cats in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science closer together.

"We're saying, 'Why fight'? This will be a marriage of two different animals that usually bicker at other universities," Esmail said.

Take Memorial University of Newfoundland, for instance, where a recently created program called "software engineering" has resulted in litigation. The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE), which accredits engineering programs, is contesting in Federal Court the university's use of the term "engineering," which it says is protected by provincial acts governing the practice of engineering.

Wendy Ryan-Bacon, director of education affairs at the Ottawa-based CCPE, said the organization is not alone in objecting to the name. "Even the Faculty of Engineering at Memorial objected," she said. "It's not an engineering program. These people will not be licensed engineers. They don't meet our accreditation criteria."

The new program at Concordia will bring the two disciplines together, with the blessing and eventual accreditation of the CCPE.

Ryan-Bacon said the term "software engineer" is acceptable if students in the program are trained as engineers. That's why the Concordia program will be set up by the book, Esmail said.

"At one end of the spectrum, you have the electrical engineers, who design hardware," he said. "At the other end, you have computer scientists, who create software. But because of the complexity of the technology, we need people who have knowledge of both camps. These will be the computer engineers and the software engineers."

Currently, the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science comprises four departments: Mechanical, Electrical and Computer Engineering, the School for Building, and the Department of Computer Science, which will be the home of the new software program.

Esmail said that students will spend four years in the program rather than the standard three to give them time to incorporate a year of engineering studies.

"The program will create another kind of specialist in the area of information technology," he said. "The need for these specialists is so acute that it is said that Canada will need 20,000 of these people in the next decade."

Esmail pointed to the fierce competition among high-tech companies for graduates with skills in information technology. "Last year, Boeing in Seattle raided Montreal for software specialists by offering them double what they were earning," he said.

He added that high-tech companies in Montreal equally need skilled knowledge workers. In January, CAE Electronics Ltd. of St. Laurent sent representatives to the Middle East with a Concordia delegation charged with getting agreements to collaborate with universities in the region.

"CAE was there to recruit software engineers," he said. "They've also been to Moscow to recruit. Concordia has to help create these specialists from young people in Montreal and Quebec to feed that market."

The program awaits approval from the University's Senate, which will meet next month. Once it gets the go-ahead, some 50 students will be accepted for the first semester.

"At the moment, there is no space for it," Esmail said. "It will have to be accommodated in a new engineering building, which we hope will be built soon. One possibility is that the building will be constructed on the lot of the York Cinema and the adjacent parking lot on Ste. Catherine St."

He says the University will approach the private sector for funding; in particular, high-tech companies that will benefit by recruiting graduates from the new program. "It's possible we could name our labs after the companies," Esmail said. "We could also set up student internships with them."

Professor Clement Lam, Chair of the Department of Computer Science, said he anticipates a high demand for enrolment in the software engineering program. "There's no question that we'll need facilities and will have to hire teachers," he said.

There's also no doubt that the program's graduates will be highly coveted by the high-tech job market.

"Cats and dogs are everywhere," Esmail said. "But that's the strength of Concordia. I don't think cats alone or dogs alone can give the same program as cats and dogs together."

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