June 15, 2014
A Hippocratic Oath for Software Developers - What Would Yours Be?Good folk who take the whole notion of a profession of software development seriously are fond of comparing us to medical doctors.
For sure, a professional developer needs to keep abrest of a very wide and growing body of knowledge on tools, techniques, principles and practices, just like a good doctor must.
And, for sure, a professional developer - a true professional - would take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions and the quality of their work, just like doctors must - especially in countries where patients have access to good lawyers who charge on a "no win, no fee" basis.
To my mind, though, what would truly set us apart as a profession would be a strong sense of ethics.
Take, for example, the whole question of user privacy: we, as a profession, seem to suffer from extreme cognitive dissonance on this issue. Understandable, when you consider that we're simultaneously users and creators of systems that might collect user data.
As users, we would wish to choose what information about us is collected, stored and shared. we would want control, and want to know every detail of what's known about us and who gets to see that data. Those of us who've had our fingers burned, or have seen those close to us get burned, by a lax attitude to user privacy, tend to err on the side of caution. We want to share as little personal information as possible, we want as few eyes looking at that data as possible, and we want to know that those eyes are attached to the brains of trustworthy people who have our best interests at heart.
What we've learned in recent years is that none of this is true. We share far more data about ourselves than we realise, and that data seems to be attracting the gaze of far too many people who've shown themselves to be untrustworthy. So, quite rightly, we rail against it all and make a big fuss about it. As users.
But, wearing our other hats, as developers, when we're asked to write code that collects and shares personal data, we don't seem to give it a second thought. "Duh, okay." seems to be the default answer.
I've done it. You've done. We've all done it.
And we did it because, in our line of work, we pay scant attention to ethics and the public good most of the time. At best, we're amoral: too wrapped up in the technical details of how some goal can be achieved for our employers to step back and ask whether it should be achieved at all. Just because we can do it, that doesn't mean that we should.
When was the last time your team had a passionate debate about the ethics of what you were doing? I've watched teams go back and forth for hours over, say, whether or not they should use .NET data binding in their UI, while blithely skimming over ethical issues, barely giving them a second thought.
And just because the guy or gal writing the cheques told us to do it, that doesn't mean that we must. Sure; one way to interpret "professional" is to think it's just someone who does something for money. But some of choose to interpret it as someone who conforms to the standards of their profession. The only problem being that, in software development, we don't have any.
So, if we could take such a thing as a Hippocratic Oath for software development, what would it be?
I suspect, given recent revelations, privacy might figure quite largely in it now. As might user safety in those instances where the software we write might cause harm - be it physical or psychological. You could argue that applications like Twitter and Facebook, for example, have the potential to cause psychological harm; an accidental leak of personal information might ruin someone's life. And then we're back to privacy again.
But what other ethical issues might such an oath need to cover? Would it have anything to say about - just off the top of my head - arbitrarily changing or even withdrawing an API that hundreds of small businesses were relying on? Would it have anything to say about having conflicting financial interests in a development project? Should someone who profits from sales of licenses for Tool X be allowed to influence the decision of whether to buy Tool X? And so on.
What would your oath be?
Posted 3 years, 6 months ago on June 15, 2014