The Other Ring of Commitment: Why Engineers Choose to Wear the Iron Ring

Canadian engineers have been wearing this pinky ring for 100 years

Engineers build things and in doing so, they move our society forward. While engineers have been growing in importance since the invention of the wheel, their role is now more important than ever before. In Canada, the roles and responsibilities of engineers are recognized in the “Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer,” a ceremony for graduating engineers that has taken place for the last 100 years.

The idea for the Ritual dates back to 1922, when University of Toronto civil engineering professor H.E.T. Haultain gave a speech titled “The Romance of Engineering.” In his speech, Haultain highlighted the need for a nation-wide organization that would unite members of the newly-formed engineering profession. He also advocated for an obligation, or statement of ethics, that young graduates could adhere to — similar to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. At Haultain’s request, poet Rupyard Kipling authored the text of the calling, emphasizing the engineers’ responsibility to produce great, uncompromised work.

At the Ritual, an Iron Ring is awarded to each graduating engineer. The ring is meant to be worn on the pinky finger of the dominant hand as a reminder of the engineer’s moral and ethical obligations to their profession, as they would see it drag every time they draw on paper and especially when signing their work. In the years since Canada pioneered this tradition, countries around the world have adopted a similar ring-bearing ceremony for their newly-graduated engineers, including the United States, which established its own “Order of the Engineer” in 1970.

At the inception of these important ceremonies 100 years ago, an engineering mistake may have injured workers in a single factory or travelers crossing a single bridge. Today engineers code the world we live in, making software truly ubiquitous (including “software beyond the screen”). Thus each product requirements document, line of code and software push must be carefully considered for bugs as well as unintended consequences because today mistakes or failures can hurt millions or billions of people.

Take the area of machine learning applications (a key investment area for Ubiquity). Machine learning (ML) enables software to make highly-accurate decisions once it has been trained on large volumes of relevant historical patterns. At its best, ML can accelerate the pace and accuracy of complicated decision-making, such as interpreting radiology scans in a hospital that would otherwise require rare human experts. On the other hand, poorly-trained ML models incorporate and reinforce biases in their training data set. These mistakes have altered lives in the cases where ML algorithms incorrectly rejected job candidates at Amazon or caused a fatal self-driving car accident at Uber. The credo of “move fast and break things” must be balanced with the increasingly broad impact of ubiquitous software.

On a more positive note, engineers can also use the massive impact of software for good. In our current COVID pandemic, we are seeing engineers write software that could save thousands of lives. Last month, Google and Apple engineers released their Contact Tracing API that developers working with public health agencies can use to monitor and slow the spread of COVID-19. These engineers have architected a thoughtful solution that is opt-in, cross-platform (iOS and Android work together for once), maintains privacy, and allows public health officials to determine the impact of each confirmed virus infection. This has huge promise but also has the power for immense harm if wielded irresponsibly.

It’s clear engineers need to take care with each line of code they write, including safety/reliability practices of code reviews, regression testing, and more. Engineers also need to be leaders in crafting policies and education around the use of technology in our society. The ring is simply one way of reminding engineers of these responsibilities they bear — it's a small token that carries great weight.

Thanks to Canadian engineer Veronica Pinchin for co-authoring this post.

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Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in software beyond the screen, primarily smart hardware and machine intelligence applications.