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Sean Dunn & Chris Edwards on Ethics and Professionalism in Software Engineering

| Podcast with Sean Dunn Follow 0 Followers , Chris Edwards Follow 0 Followers by Shane Hastie Follow 11 Followers on Nov 06, 2017 |

This is the Engineering Culture Podcast, from the people behind InfoQ.com and the QCon conferences.

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Sean Dunn and Chris Edwards about professionalism, licensing and ethics in software engineering.

Key Takeaways

  • Situations where software development intersects with the public interest are widening and software can impact the health and wellbeing of society 
  • The distinguishing characteristic of a profession is holding paramount the public interest
  • Unlike the failure of a bridge, unethical results from software will be less visible and more insidious
  • What steps can we take within our organisations to instil a sense of responsibility that is beyond getting the product out the door quickly?
  • A core tenant of professionalism is when we cannot detach our actions from the outcomes – ignorance is not an excuse
  • 0:25 Introduction
  • 0:54 Both Chris and Sean are licensed Professional Engineers in Alberta, Canada
  • 1:10 In Canada, the term Engineer is a regulated title – to practice as an engineer you must be licensed by a regulatory body
  • 1:54 Situations where software development intersects with the public interest are widening and software can and does impact the health and wellbeing of society
  • 2:45 Licensed engineers are legally obliged to abide by a code of conduct
  • 3:10 The distinguishing characteristic of a profession is holding paramount the public interest – above our own interests, and above the interests of our employers
  • 3:40 This can put the professional engineer in a conflict situation where they have to make hard decisions
  • 3:50 How trust in IT has eroded and reduced over time
  • 4:50 The reason Engineering became a profession in Canada was because of disasters that had happened and the need for governance around ethics and standards. This is currently missing in software development
  • 5:20 Discussing some recent examples of unethical behaviour in software development
  • 5:40 The software development is judged in the eyes of the public because of unethical behaviour and this erodes the trust
  • 6:15 Does building a line of business or point of sale software product need the same level of governance as software that can cause injury or death?
  • 6:36 The impact of software extends into the socio-economic institutions of society and the borders become very unclear around where a software product can cause harm
  • 6:55 Examples of software products which could be used to cause public harm
  • 7:15 Machine learning systems that entrench and amplify racial and other biases into such things as hiring processes
  • 7:55 Unlike the failure of a bridge or a physical construct, these effects from software will be less visible and more insidious
  • 8:10 An example of a machine learning system used in hiring that was deployed and built with a bias against the CVs of people who had an African American name
  • 8:40 The importance of running the tests and experiments to expose the bias in machine learning systems
  • 8:45 The software professional needs to be aware of the consequences of how the program will be used
  • 8:57 The need and the challenge to include this in the training of software professionals globally
  • 9:12 The goal of Chris and Sean’s talk is to start the conversation – they don’t claim to have the answers
  • 10:05 Discussing the content of the code of professional ethics of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta
  • 10:09 Hold paramount the public interest and regard for the environment – this may be in conflict with the interests of our employers
  • 10:35 The way the Engineering profession includes and emphasizes this right from the first year of training
  • 11:25 The way the engineering profession prepares engineers to be able to stand up for what is right over what is expedient
  • 11:50 The requirement on the professional to “uphold the dignity and honour of the profession” and what that means
  • 12:25 The importance of continued education and representing the profession well
  • 12:47 Discussing how this could impact on entry into the software profession – where do you draw the line between needing professional accreditation and being a hobbyist or self-taught developer?
  • 13:25 What steps can we take within our organisations to instil a sense of responsibility that is beyond getting the product out the door quickly?
  • 14:15 Discussing different examples that came up in the conversations around their talk
  • 15:03 What about the situation where some or all of a product development is outsourced to a third party – who carries the responsibility for the ethical aspects of that product?
  • 15:27 Exploring the implications for software testing
  • 15:45 The need to move towards an agile approach which has total ownership of the outcomes become the team’s responsibility
  • 15:52 A core tenant of professionalism is we cannot detach our actions from the outcomes – ignorance is not an excuse
  • 16:10 Bad ethical outcomes are a result of the culture of the organisation – they don’t happen in isolation
  • 17:12 Where there is an external authorizing body the consequences of unethical behaviour are such that people are more likely to say “no” when faced with an unethical choice (go to prison vs lose your job)
  • 17:50 Exploring the Volkswagen case
  • 18:25 A governing body needs to have power to impact the ability to practice in order for it to actually hold sway
  • 19:05 Discussing the characteristics needed for a governing body to have credibility and the need for inclusiveness over elitism, while maintaining a standard which earns the trust of the public
  • 20:05 Advice for the audience around concrete actions to take to raise the ethical bar in their own organisations and within their own teams
  • 21:00 The need to define a “Definition of Ethical” within a self-organising team
  • 22:03 As leaders help people to exercise their moral muscles and educate them around being able to stand up for right rather than expedient

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