Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Toward a Discussion of Morality and Code

Opinion: Should software developers have a moral code about their coding? ThoughtWorks says yes.
Is there an emerging discussion around morality and coding?

Well, Neville R. "Roy" Singham, founder and chairman of an organization of highly trained software ninjas known as ThoughtWorks, waded deeply into the realm of morality and code during a recent conversation with eWEEK in our New York offices.

The Chicago-based company is a software consultancy with a focus on agile development processes and methodologies, but morality and the betterment of society appear to be overarching concerns for the firm that is expected to number 1,000 people by the end of 2007, said CEO Trevor Mather.

Grady Booch, chief scientist at IBM Software Group's Rational division, has raised the issue of morality and code as well, most recently in an interview where he questioned whether software developers should be involved in creating systems that are deemed immoral or harmful to others.

Singham said many of his employees choose not to work on military projects, and the company doesn't force them to. But don't get it twisted, Singham said: ThoughtWorks' philosophies are not a fad or a passing fancy, they represent a cause. In fact, the company itself is a cause.

"We're saying we, ThoughtWorks, have an obligation to change the industry because we're a cause, we're not a company," he said. "We're the United Nations of software. I am a social activist. I was a civil rights activist. Other people in the firm also are very socially conscious."

Singham, who founded the company in 1993, said he was a social activist for years before starting the business. "I've slept on floors and been an advocate for the homeless," he said. "I believe that I am here to serve society. Most ThoughtWorkers are here because they'd rather work with smart people who can make a difference."

Mather said what attracted him to ThoughtWorks was the talent and the company's ability to use agile practices to deliver software faster and better. As for talent, Singham said ThoughtWorks is selective, hiring one of every 100 or 200 applicants, depending on the country they are hiring in. Admitting that he was risking sounding arrogant, Singham said: "We are the McKinsey of software process and software development," comparing his company to the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co.

Singham—whether or not he could be called arrogant—is confident, but not in an off-putting way. It's a confidence borne out of success. He said ThoughtWorks is sold out through the first quarter of 2008, all the while focusing on agile development, on quality software and on bettering the world. It suits the company's employees just fine.

Mather echoes the same sentiment. "What keeps me in the company is I just feel that I'm a much better person today as an individual and a human being," he said. "Before, I didn't care about whether or not we hired women into the work force. I didn't care whether African-Americans were being thought about and trying to bring them into the organization. I didn't care about that stuff. But now I care about all of that and I talk to all of these people and I realize that we as a society have been wrong in a lot of ways."

Although Mather said he and his colleagues realize "that the common cause for us is IT, if you ask them what makes them stay, they'll say it's because the values of the company are about promoting the betterment of society."

Added Singham; "It used to be that shareholder optimization was the prime directive. Our model is serving society in an economically strong way, which is a multi-stakeholder approach. So we are all for gaining a more sustainable environment, the green movement, all these things are helping our cause. The fact that it was legal to dump mercury in the river many years ago doesn't mean it was not immoral. The fact that it's not illegal but is immoral, who's accountable for that? The fact that a disproportionate number of African-American men go to prison in the United States or are on parole or probation and nobody seems to care about it or says, 'That's somebody else's problem,' is just wrong."

Singham said he wants to do good, change the industry and make money. Still, he said he realizes there are times when the social initiatives must take a back seat.

"If we have a revenue shortfall, guess what we're going to do? We're going to go after revenue, and we're going to spend less money on thinking about how to improve continuous integration for the rest of the planet," he said.

These views are not unrealistic. "I don't want us to make it sound like we're more pious than thou and that we've solved all these problems and that we're so brilliant we've figured out how to be socially good people, make money, etc. We're not," he said. "We're not magicians. All we're saying is the world needs better balance on discussion of those issues, and we try to balance that out."

Mostly, Singham said he wanted to create a company that lasts, that stands for something and does its part to effect change.

"We wanted to build a 100-year company that was the world model for good citizenship in the 21st century," he said. "The issue was how could you attract outstanding human beings that are passionate about change, that want to do the right thing for society, that are not motivated by greed, and still run a business?"

It seems like ThoughtWorks is succeeding on some of those goals, or possibly all of them at some level or another.

One thing the company might consider as it grows and gains more headcount is to do more in the way of training to share some of that ninja-like expertise. They may not turn out folks that are at the level of ThoughtWorkers, but the industry needs all the help it can get.

courtesy @eweek.com

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