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Right vs. Right: Ethical Issues for Software Testers

On April 23, 2012, in News, by dpizzica
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By: Scott Allman

I want your help gathering stories for my CAST 2012 presentation.  Let me tell you about how you can help.

My presentation aims to teach a skill to software testers.  One of the benefits of the skill is to help testers understand and work through ethical issues.  The presentation begins, “The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”,  just like the famous American actor Jack Webb, playing the role of Sergeant Joe Friday,  said at the beginning of each episode of the popular TV series Dragnet.  True stories add authenticity.

This may seem backwards but allow me to start by describing stories I do NOT want.  Search the internet for “software testing ethics” and a bazillion hits are found.    IEEE, ACM and most organizations have a code of ethics.  They contain common sense rules of conduct – don’t harm others, reject bribes, etc.  After all, those actions are wrong.  Wrongs are important but they are not the focus of this talk.  I won’t talk about codes of ethics or other wrongs.

Three examples will illustrate the stories I want.

In “The Dark Side of Software Engineering” (IEEE/Wiley, 2011), the authors asked software professionals about subversion, lying, hacking, theft of information, espionage, sabotage and other obvious wrongs.  Using the fictional names  Senior Management and Top Tech one of the authors tells a familiar story.   “Time passed, and it came time for me to present my findings to Senior Management.   Top Tech attended that briefing with me.  I had wrestled all along with the dilemma of reporting that key bug finding or suppressing it to keep my commitment to Top Tech.  Going in to the meeting, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do….”

Here is a story that happened on one of my projects.  While fixing a nasty bug in one of our testing tools another very subtle bug was introduced.  This bug caused intermittent failures and some bewilderment and frustration.  Team rules required a review before committing code to the common build.  This had not been done. When this was discovered some annoyed team members, citing the process, called a meeting for a public spanking.  Other team members found the benefits of resolving the original bug to be the more important observation.  The meeting is about to begin.

Finally, in the part of the world where I live you may see a popular bumper sticker.  It is easily recognized by its distinctive colors and fonts.  The same message shouts from highway billboards as you cruise the American West.  It says, “Ask first, to hunt and fish on private land.”  Eventually a reply sticker appeared, again in the same colors and fonts.  It said, “Ask first, if the animal wants to be killed.”

What do these stories have in common? Ethical issues are often a conflict in rights, and not just right vs. wrong.  Correct action is often driven by your values and context.

In particular, I am looking for stories where right vs. right involve a trade-off between:

  • Truth vs. loyalty (first story)
  • Justice vs. mercy (second story)
  • Individual vs. the group (third story)
  • Short term vs. long term (there are lots of these)

Has something happened that makes your ethical compass a little uneasy?  We want to hear about it.  Be a journalist and write down the facts.  Be a philosopher and apply ethics.  Send it to me.  Lets gather grist for our problem solving.

Contact Scott to share your story.

 


Scott Allman has a B.A. and M.A. in philosophy and more than 40 years experience as a software developer and tester.  At CAST 2012 he will present “Right vs. Right: Ethical Issues for Software Testers ”.

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