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Here’s why ethics matter in the world of software developers

The IT industry is focused on creating as much software developers as possible. That’s great but it misses out on a very real problem about ethics and lives.

A few stories from the past few days have caught the software developers’ attention quite a lot. Stories which revealed the darker side of developing software. And it’s something which prompts a lot more action by both companies and software developers.

It all started by a video of Robert Martin which is called The Future of Programming. Martin is a well-known programmer, especially by his nickname Uncle Bob. In it Uncle Bob said that software developers are killing people.

“We are killing people,” Martin says. “We did not get into this business to kill people. And this is only getting worse”. He points out to various software glitches which have cost lives in air travel and most recently in autonomous cars.

Things we know, but rather not say

But after the video went viral in the dev community, programmers started sharing some even more worrying stories. Software dev and teacher Bill Sourour kicked the confessions off with a horrible story from his early days as a programmer. He was hired to make a website for a pharmaceutical company. He claims he was duped into helping the company go around drug advertising laws. The end result was advertising a drug which had a terrible side effect to worsen depression.

Even worse, at least one young woman committed suicide while taking the drug. Sourour tells BusinessInsider that his sister was also taking the medication, but he told her about the risks and she stopped. He says he feels guilty about it to this day decades later.

Other developers then started sharing on Reddit and other sites some of their dealings with the dark side. Most kept their names private. Even so, their stories are quite telling.

One dev wrote he was asked to make a software for a radio device to use frequencies reserved for emergency services. This would make the device run faster and better, but it’s quite illegal.

Another one wrote he was offered to make a gambling game disguised as a base-building resource-management strategy game for kids. A third one was given competitor’s code an asked to use it as base for a demo for investors. Yet another one said he was offered to alter a backup of financial data and re-run a year-end report with that altered data. All of these people said they declined to complete the job. But the general consensus is that usually it’s easy to find another dev who doesn’t have a problem to do the work.

There’s a solution

Martin says he expects things to get worse. Much, much worse. He warns that one day someone will create a software which will cause huge damage and will cost hundreds if not thousands of lives. By then it will already be way, too late. He and Sourour agree that now is the time for companies and developers to govern themselves.

Companies and bootcamps rarely include ethics trainings. The focus is on creating devs fast as possible to satisfy a growing and insatiable market for coding skills, he adds. Sourour is calling for all bootcamps and online training sites to “start talking about the ethical responsibilities that come along with writing code,” he says.

Martin also says most devs don’t yet realize what responsibility they have. They also don’t realize that it will increase as software becomes even more integral in day-to-day life. So, don’t underestimate the power which your software dev team has and hone it for good use.