Volume 33 Number 11
Don't Get Me Started - For Whom the Bell Tolls
By David S. Platt | November 2018
I’ve been seeing more discussion in the media these days about employees questioning the morality of the projects on which they’re working. Are they enabling repressive political regimes? Poisoning the planet? Hoodwinking uneducated customers, especially children? And so on.
We deal with this dilemma in every job that we consider. I remember a job interview in engineering school, where a company asked if I had reservations about working on nuclear weapons. The interviewer said, “Other people decide what we need, we just build them.” My editor won’t let me quote my exact reply, but an accurate paraphrase is: “I doubt that argument would save my neck at my war crimes trial.” They didn’t offer me the job, which is probably just as well.
Here in politically liberal Massachusetts, it’s sometimes hard to hire people for military projects. I once worked for a company that made chaff decoys for warships—as defensive a tool as you can find. “Chaff decoys don’t blow people up,” I said. My cynical-but-realistic friends riposted, “No, destroyers shielded by chaff decoys blow people up.” True, but I clung to the fig leaf that let me sleep at night.
I once met a guy at a TechEd conference whose company made cigarettes. Few products today are more reviled. Even state-legal marijuana enjoys a certain plucky underdog image, aided partly by Microsoft (see my December 2016 column at msdn.com/magazine/mt763241). “What’s the job like?” I asked. “About like any other job, I suppose. By state law, there’s no smoking in the office. It’s kinda funny actually, seeing everyone go outside to smoke. But the product is legal, and prohibition would be worse. I see it as a Darwin award generator, you know? Improving the human species by killing off the dumb ones?”
Playing the cynical realist, I explained that to earn a Darwin, he’d have to kill off smokers before they reproduced. Could he make cigarettes deadlier? I pointed him to Christopher Buckley’s 1994 satirical novel “Thank You for Smoking,” and the 2005 film made from it. I probably would have cashed that company’s check, had they offered me one. But I’d have a hard time explaining it to my daughters.
What happens when your company produces something generic, say, chain saws? These can obviously be used for good or evil, depending on the intent of the wielder. There are something like a billion Windows PCs in the world. It’s a pretty good bet that at any hour of the day or night, somebody somewhere is using one for a purpose Microsoft would detest if the company knew about it. I’ve taught more than 1,000 students at Harvard over the years, and more at companies around the world. It’s a statistical certainty that some of them are using the knowledge I gave them for purposes I’d consider evil. Both Microsoft and I manage to muddle through by hoping there’s a lot more of the good. Maybe it’s time to restart my campaign for a geek’s version of the Hippocratic oath, as I wrote in my September 2012 column (see msdn.com/magazine/jj618306).
In my travels as an itinerant consultant, a week here, a month there, I’ve worked with hundreds of companies. Every employee at every one of them has concocted a rationalization as to why they took that job, a way of thrusting down the bad stuff and concentrating on the good stuff. You have to do that with any career—in fact, with all of life—or you’d never get anywhere. Of course, by definition, the ones who couldn’t do that at a company wouldn’t be the employees I met there. Guys who can stomach weapons but not cigarettes work at Raytheon, guys with the opposite gastric preferences at Philip Morris.
I think about people whose altruistic work I admire. Gisli Olafsson, flying into Liberia at the height of the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak to bolster the IT of the relief effort (msdn.com/magazine/dn818503). Owen Walker, defending guilty criminals as a way of defending the U.S. Constitution (January 2017, msdn.com/magazine/mt791803). Atul Gawande, who inspired me to write “Why Software Sucks.” And I ask myself what I’m doing. A thousand or so Harvard students is what I have to show for it, and about the same number of corporate students. And you, dear readers, as my grandmother used to say, “All you can do is all you can do.” Would she think I’ve done enough?
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.