Engineers, ethics and scapegoats

Uncle Bob talked about the VW software engineers on his Clean Coder Blog. Go and read it.

There’s two important issues here. One is that the official line is that the engineers acted alone and no-one else knew what they were doing, in any QA, in any road testing, in any future tweak over the many years these cars were for sale. Although I note there’s no suggestion it was an accident, or an oversight, as in other European engineering failures.

So, if we accept this was a deliberate action, and that the engineers were aware of the consequences, at least in terms of the NOx and CO2 outputs in US and EU tests respectively, and this wasn’t a misconfiguration or falsely triggered test mode, then the engineers have some professional ethical questions to answer. I don’t know the full story about the process that led to this software being developed, signed off, and released, but it’s a good time to consider what our ethics should mean.

I hope you would all enforce ethics in your code, and would challenge any questionable decision from within or outwith the team. This is our first duty as professional developers, to ensure the integrity of what we produce, to ensure it meets all legal and appropriate quality standards, and does not mislead.

Unfortunately, it can be easier said than done. Standing up once and saying, this is wrong, can be scary, even when you have documents and a team backing you up, but when time pressure or financial threats hang over a decision, it’s far easier for that fear to turn into inaction or compliance with a bad decision.

So, before you get into that position, review your code of ethics, from your company, and from your professional body (in my case, the BCS Code of Conduct). If your company doesn’t have one, make one. Defer to a professional body if that’s easier, but make sure everyone knows it, and knows that the company will support them if they refuse to do something because it breaches the code.

It’s much harder to be a scapegoat when no code was breached. Take pride in your profession.

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