Do Tech Pros Need To Say ‘No’ When They See Something Wrong?

At some point in your tech career, a hard choice has to be made. Do you continue down the path your managers laid out, or go against the grain? It’s never an easy choice, but it might be better to take a stand.

In the wake of scandals at big tech companies such as Facebook and Uber, engineers and developers were left wondering whether their work had a detrimental effect on the world, or at least their users’ data.

Many of those tech pros often left rather than work at a company that committed an ethical violation. But their departure just raises more questions: should they have sounded the alarm earlier – if at all? In a blog post titled Activist Engineering, independent developer Matthew Bischoff thinks so (emphasis his):

We’re better than this. As software engineers and designers, we’re in the room when decisions are shaped, and the only ones who have the power to actually execute them. It’s our responsibility not to forsake the people who trust the apps we make with our silence. To stand up and refuse to implement unethical systems and dark patterns. And even more, to educate stakeholders on the real human costs of their business decisions: the time, attention, money, and trust of their customers.

It’s harder, yes, and riskier. But they can’t build it without us. We get a say. Even if it’s not in that meeting, we can think about the goals they’re trying to accomplish and propose alternatives. We don’t have to hide in our sit-stand nap pods and eye-roll while we engineer a worse world. We can do more than write code. We can research and present better alternatives. We can write memos and make a slide decks to convince them of of our position. We can be activist engineers.

In a nutshell, Bischoff claims tech pros at some firms are simply not proactive, and only react when times are tough, often dire. He’s not wrong, and it’s not right.

There are plenty of excuses for staying quiet when you know something is amiss at a company, but no good reasons. It may be, as Bischoff points out, that tech pros don’t have a universal code of ethics. He points to the ‘Order of the Engineer’ as a boilerplate example of what tech pros should emulate, but the fact remains that it’s up to you individually to follow your moral compass.

We don’t know what will come of the latest imbroglio involving Facebook, but government oversight is on the table. None are louder than Oregon Senator Ron Wyden when it comes to Facebook and government oversight. His comments distill down to ‘fix it, or we will.’

Such oversight inevitably won’t focus just on Facebook, and nobody wants government involvement for any tech product or service – much less all of it. But we should keep in mind that it was the corps of engineers within Facebook that lead us here. They weren’t proactive. They didn’t speak up when it was clear things were wrong internally.

They’re not the first group, either. In fact, this happens all too often. Data breaches are also a result of a blasé attitude about a stack or technology. A great example is T-Mobile, which thinks storing usernames and password in plain-text is fine because it believes its security is “amazingly good.”

It all shows that engineers, developers or anyone else involved in a consumer-facing product can – and should – speak up when they notice something isn’t right. Facebook, Uber and the rest promise sweeping change, but an internal culture of ignoring issues is actually to blame. A company might have hired you for your technical acumen, but it inherited your morality. Saying ‘no’ the next time you see that something is wrong, or otherwise incongruous to what you know to be best practices, might save your company a lot of trouble down the line.

6 Responses to “Do Tech Pros Need To Say ‘No’ When They See Something Wrong?”

  1. Hey, it’s also wrong to publish misleading links that appear to have specific information about a specific event of interest but that actually point to fluffy, generic articles on your own site. There’s a human cost. Won’t be reading Dice any more.

  2. Jim Lonero

    Good article, except it misses on some points. In software engineering, as in any endeavor, there is the potential for errors of commission and errors of omission. The first implies that the engineer knows that his new technology can be used for harm and the second, the engineer doesn’t know that it could be used for harm. Truly, any technology can be used for good and bad. The internet is a good example. People post articles and opinions that we would consider good or safe, and they post stuff that are not good nor safe.

    Errors of commission occur because, in our reach for better technology, we to pursue the ideas. But, humankind is not ready for it. (Sounds like something out of Star Trek.) Look at the automobile. It was a great invention, but not as smart as the horse. A horse was smart enough not to crash itself. A person driving an automobile will be more accident prone than a person riding a horse. Think tanks like SRI and Microsoft Research have developed technology that humans weren’t ready for (and are still not ready for).

    Errors of omission is where the impact of the technology is not thought though enough (if at all) before releasing it. Opinion collectors (and distributers) like Facebook and Twitter have done products/services that allow people to connect, sometimes, anonymously.

    People using these services, especially Facebook, look for how many other people give them positive feedback. Even counting their “Likes”. Of course, negative feedback occurs also. People will flame others on these types of media. I use Discuss, another online commentary media, where people who have differing opinions easily trash others. Unfortunately, some people get deeply offended (hurt) by those negative opinions that they may ultimately hurt themselves. (So called cyber-bullying.) There is the potential for a good psychological study from all of this opinions business. My question: why do people feel that other’s opinions matter more than their own opinions of themselves?

    • Lee Randolph

      You haven’t ridden many horses, have you? I get your point, of course, we do often times get ahead of ourselves. And, throughout human history, there was little more dangerous than a mob of anonymous people.

      The one thing that has changed over time is the efficiency with which we seem to accomplish so much that was hard for our ancestors, including doing harm to others.

  3. Unfortunately, some companies don’t care about ethics, only making excuses when their caught by the appropriate powers. As with many others, I’ve dealt with companies that had no problem lying to customers and/or employees. I even blew the whistle on one of the companies that I worked for who ordered me to do something completely unethical (and probably illegal.) Instead of doing the right thing, the company retaliated. (They still owe me a lot of money, which they’ll never pay.)

    While “nice guys finish last,” I still wouldn’t change my decision to stand up to management.