When Ethics and Code Quality Collide

By Deane Barker on January 7, 2008

Business software is Messy and Ugly: This post tosses out an interesting point.

One of the developers asked the question point blank: “What do you do when your managers tell you to make a mess?” I responded: “You don’t take it. Behave like a doctor who’s hospital administrator has just told him that hand-washing is too expensive, and he should stop doing it.”

This post extends the point a bit further.

Where I think the advice fits is where third parties — like users — are the ones who suffer the consequences. Doctors wash their hands because their patients’ health is at risk if they don’t. If a hospital administrator asks for a cover page on the TPS reports, a doctor cannot argue that she will not do it because it is inefficient. If it won’t kill a patient, the doctor must accommodate the administrator’s decision.

In the case of software development, if I am asked to develop software that is insecure and places private user data at risk, I will make the personal choice of saying no.

Put another way, crappy code becomes an ethical issue when third-parties are involved. As a programmer, is it your responsibility to refuse an order that would injure a third party? How sharp or blurry is that line?



  1. The government may end up deciding upon this issue for us in the UK.

    I don’t know if you have been keeping up with events over here but the government itself has recently been rocked by its lax security measures which led to the losses of millions of peoples personal data ( 25 million being the biggest single loss ) as a result there have now been calls to criminalise such callousness http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7168588.stm.

    As an aside a top BBC presenter was recently stung when he printed his personal bank account details in a newspaper column whilst trying to poo-poo all those that were up in arms about the loss or peoples data http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7174760.stm

  2. Unfortunately the blurriness of that line is completely personal – if you to tell your boss “no” while everyone else on his staff says “ok”, you’ll end up looking for a job.

    Medical ethics are taught as part of medical school, I don’t even know that CS ethics courses even EXIST in most programs.

    A software engineering version of the Canadian Iron Ring that takes ethics of privacy and security seriously would be a very good thing. Imagine the great firewall of China, or the USA’s warantless wiretapping systems never being built because not enough competent software engineers were willing to work on such an immoral projects?

  3. As an aside a top BBC presenter was recently stung when he printed his personal bank account details in a newspaper column

    I just posted on this, completely coincidental to your comment. Weird.

  4. Ethics could mean different things – could mean compliance, legal regulations, audit recommendations, etc. which in the case of those ethics being in contrast with management direction – not sure the company will be around to pay you much longer anyway.

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