Practice Ethical IT

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - Practitioners in most major professions subscribe to codes of ethics that govern their behavior. Trust is thus linked to expectations that a privileged expert will behave ethically. Such an outlook is essential in order for a modern society to operate, because we depend on the fairness and good judgment of an advantaged few to tell the truth, abstain from giving self-serving advice and offer warnings when waste of valuable resources is discovered. Otherwise, corruption will invariably creep in, opening the door for government intervention.

My interest in the relationship between ethics and computing goes back to 1981, when I authored the code of ethics for the Data Processing Management Association. Professionals who successfully passed the examination to obtain a certificate in data processing had to pledge adherence to this code. To see how we have become accustomed to lower standards of morality, as well as the rising insensitivity to IT errors, consider the following:

-- A forthcoming conference for IT leaders features a tutorial that includes as topics "how to make other people cringe and whimper when you enter the room," "how to get what you want when you want it whether you deserve it or not," "how to act . . . without morality," "how to leave kindness and decency behind" and "how to seize the future by the throat and make it cough up money." The entire conference is offered to IT executives for a fee of $2,380 each and to consultants for $10,000 each, with an additional opportunity to purchase a book that includes lessons on "how to get mean and nasty" and how to "lie when necessary."

-- Microsoft Corp. launches Windows 2000 with claims of its extraordinary reliability, but its own list of potential defects and required fixes, which come to light a week after it released the software, is testimony to the company's long-standing track record of releasing fault-prone products. One of Microsoft's own developers rationalized this situation by stating, "[T]he fact that Microsoft found that many bugs indicates just how thorough their testing processes are, both prior and after releasing new software." A misleading demonstration of Windows 98 by a key Microsoft executive before a federal judge last year is another example of how many employees in that wealthy firm subject customers to a skillful cover-up of the truth.

-- InfoWorld columnist Bob Lewis contrasts the admittedly ample and successful Y2k spending with the 30 percent success rate for all other IT projects. He argues that such an excessive failure rate may be the result of too-tight budgets. This argument suggests that since IT project proposals aren't trustworthy anyway, management ought to always increase IT funding for projects to succeed like the Y2k nonevent.

-- America Online Inc. releases Version 5.0 of its software, which interferes with other computer programs and Internet service providers without prior notice and without permission from the customer. It tends to disable, interrupt, alter and interfere with competing software offerings. This case is an example of the arrogance that has become accepted behavior by IT software suppliers.

Executive Implications

Marie Antoinette, who like her husband, King Louis XVI of France, was beheaded in 1793, is popularly thought to have said, "Let them eat cake," when she heard that peasants didn't have enough bread and were starving. I hear too many examples of a similarly smug disregard of IT troubles.

No one will lose his head over this. But IT runs the risk of inviting government regulations and mandatory compliance with "best practices" promulgated as universal codes, which will greatly erode all the personal freedom, creativity and prosperity with which computer professionals have been blessed so far. To postpone this, get a copy of any code of professional ethics (see http://csep.iit.edu/codes/computer.html), put it into practice, and demonstrate less tolerance for many current transgressions.

Strassmann (paul@strassmann.com) advocates regulation-free pursuit of professional work, as long as it's accompanied by an ethical sense of accountability.

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