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CIPS Members Blog: "Programmer Ethics"

By Donna Lindskog I.S.P. (ret.) - 03/24/2017

A March 17 CBC podcast calls for a “Code of Ethics for Coders”.  This is an interview with the same Bill Sourour that I listed as having the top ethical dilemma of 2016.

He wants something that says “Never write code that knowingly betrays a user’s trust.”  And he wants an association that will stand behind him to ensure that if he says “no” to a request that would betray trust, a) he will not lose his job and b) nobody else will take the job either.  He may be looking for the CIPS Code of Ethics and our I.S.P. certification. We certainly aim to improve the public trust of Information Technology.

Perhaps Bill Sourour does not know about CIPS. Bill Sourour is working in the Ottawa area, but perhaps he works with many Americans and is arguing for their sake.  The U.S.A. does not have an equivalent of CIPS although they have the ACM and the IEEE and a number of other organizations that have a code of ethics.

I would argue that CIPS has a certification for the whole country and has legislation in many provinces saying they are the professional association for the Information Technology Industry.  Before we can guarantee that nobody else would take Bill’s job, we need many more people certified, and more employers that require an I.S.P., but the vision is there.

But perhaps Bill wants something for programmers.  The CIPS I.S.P. certification is for IT professionals in a variety of roles, including senior programmers that have experience and are doing design.  He does discuss the role of coder vs all the other people involved in the process. In the CBC interview they discuss the Volkswagen emissions code incident, and he says that those may not have been rouge coders, but they knew what that code did.  He sees coders as being the last line of defence. 

 I recently saw the movie “Hidden Figures” and loved the women that learned FORTRAN so they could make the IBM machine work.  I remember the days when programming was “a woman’s job getto” because it was just coding exactly from specs.  No decisions.  Eventually we changed all our job descriptions from PROGRAMMER to PROGRAMMER ANALYST.  I believe that every process has its junior members, but once you are making design decisions you must be professional enough to make the ethical decisions too.  That is more the definition of a coder now – someone who does design as well.  So the CIPS professional is the last line of defense.

Speaking of defence, Bill considered asking for a rule that said “Never write code that harms someone.” But then he decided that it was valid to write software for a Weapons Guidance System.  Maybe we should review the CIPS code to see what it would say about that.