What if We Regulated Software Engineers?

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.

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. We can release dangerous software that leaks personal data, causes cancer, or kills drivers. These events are not created equal, but a software engineer can expect to be fired at worst. I'm unsure if this is because we are unable to define a standard of care, or are unwilling to do so. But without a standard of care, users may unknowingly risk harm. 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 my former employer, but I should be able to warn the public or have the tools to hold my employer acccountable to the circumstances of a dangerous release.

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. What would change if people said “I am not an engineer” in the same way that they said “I am not a lawyer”? If I was licensed to code, then could I cite the possible loss of my license as a reason to not deliver unsafe work? I'd rather lose my career and do no harm than keep making money off of the risks we make others take.

Even if we were unable to define a standard of care, users can always call their represenatives to demand one. When enough people start calling for regulation, we need to be prepared to negotiate a standard of care to govern our jobs. We might actually come out ahead if we start the conversation ourselves.

So regulate me. I hate what I've been allowed to do, and I need to be able to turn a dangerous software release into a job- or career-ending event. That's better for society, and it allows me to say “no” in a way that makes me look good in court.