Did Volkswagen unfairly ask their developers to play with fire?

Did Volkswagen unfairly ask their developers to play with fire? 1024 565 Hadi Tok

Fire. It is considered the greatest gift in human history. When I first started my Computer Science major one of the early prerequisites of the major was to take a course on “Information Technology in Society”. The core reading for the course was a book called “A gift of fire”*. Fire is used as a metaphor for illustrating the power of creation that comes with the job role. On the one hand it can be man’s greatest gift, but in the case of misuse, it can be extraordinarily harmful.

From the very beginning, we were taught the power and importance of learning how to develop technology. It was considered critical that we (as students) fully understood the ethics of our trade before we were taught how to apply our trade.

After I heard about Volkswagen’s (VW) software driven emissions scandal, I tried to empathize with the VW software developers, being a fellow developer myself. I tried to put myself in their shoes. Working at VW is a dream job for most people so how did they feel when VW asked them to develop fraudulent software? I asked myself “what would I do if I were in their position?”. It would be a huge dilemma if I were asked to participate to the development of this kind of customer deception. The measure of success, in this “dream job” is to lie and deceive. This is such a sad and stressful situation for the individual concerned! These issues are complex, but from my perspective the key issue here is: how protected is the developer, by the law, if they refused a request like this?

Every job we take on comes with long contracts and non-disclosure agreements. We have to agree to these terms if we want the job. But how binding are employment contracts if the employer compromises not just professional ethics but the law itself? Is there any protection to employees who refuse unethical or unlawful projects? Going one step further is there any protection for sharing this information with the public? Will the law protect us or will we be punished for being outspoken? Even if we’re not punished will we become unemployable for being disruptive or a known troublesome employee? In all honesty, I don’t know the answers to these questions.

This issue is not software development specific. Workers of all specialisms and skills could face professional dilemmas like this. The most important thing is that workers should be protected by law and should be made to feel safe when they are driven to act against something that is illegal or unethical. In light of the fraudulent behaviour of VW, there is a real need for an independent organisation to advise, protect and stand with the developer (or employee). Trade unions used to effectively fulfill this role in many European economies but in Turkey, where I work, I am not aware of any such organisation for software developers. Without a formal body fighting for the rights of the employee, my university module on the ethics of software development is pointless. Now that “software is eating the world”, I would encourage the ethics of playing with fire be taught to corporate decision makers, not just to those making those decisions a reality.

* http://www.amazon.com/Gift-Fire-Ethical-Computing-Technology/dp/0132492679

Picture credit: Peter John Maridable

Hadi Tok

As scrum lead, Hadi has a breadth of knowledge and experience. He is our lead Android developer, but also has experience working on server-side Java development and building Windows Phone apps. Oh and he is currently learning iOS too. In his work, Hadi has a close attention to detail which is both surprising and playful. He lives in Istanbul after living in the US for four years studying Computer Science at the University of South Alabama. In his spare time Hadi loves playing Circassian songs on his treasured accordion.

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