What if We Regulated Software Engineers?

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What would change if people said “I am not an engineer” in the same way that they said “I am not a lawyer”?

In the United States, software engineers aren’t professionals like doctors or lawyers. We don’t have a standard of care to define negligence. We are not invincible, but a doctor or lawyer could never operate like we do. Leaking personal data, causing cancer, or killing a driver might get a software engineer fired, but that’s about it.

I have a degree, but I don’t need one to get a job building something dangerous. Employers shield me from the fallout from anything my teams build. If I get fired, it’s not an issue. I don’t have a license to lose, and this is a candidate-driven market. Sometimes I can get a raise just by switching jobs. Of these many privileges, the right to say “no” to a dangerous release isn’t one of them.

Imagine you are the person that noticed your team was about to ship a smartphone that will, I don’t know, burst into flames. If you want to fix the problem now, all of your options involve trying to slow a money-making organization’s push to make money while they pay you. You will find yourself opening the door to let your preventable mistake play outside. I never got over how that feels.

I know how a stranger can steal your social security number in a system that one of my old teams wrote. I can’t tell you more without provoking the employer. I did everything I could to prevent the mistake, but I didn’t sign the checks. To be clear, I’m not making excuses. I didn’t write the code that caused the problem, but I think the flaw is still my fault. If only I could say “no.”

If you ask lawyers to help you launder money, they will tell you “no.” They don’t want to be disbarred, so they know what they can’t do. They are the lawyers, and we have learned to respect that. Why don’t software engineers get that respect? Do we need a bar of software engineers to punish those who knowingly release dangerous software?

I now write open source software as a kind of repentance. My mistakes are my own, and the people I serve can see them. If my career was at risk up until now, would I have fewer regrets?

I don’t know. At least I sleep better now.