Sunday, September 29, 2013

Exciting Ethical Considerations

Who would have thought that a formal code of ethics would be interesting and thought provoking? Having been bored to delirium with some books on foundations of formal ethical principles I didn't expect to get sucked in by reading the ACM Code of Ethics. Surprise!!!!!

What really got my attention is that there is a very active - nay proactive - tone to the whole thing. In contrast to tomes (and I mean TOMES) I have read in the past, which are thorough and informative if you can stay awake, this page and half kept me sitting upright in my chair. The Code suggests - nay instructs - ACM members to take charge in a variety of societal and environmental ways.

Here are several excerpts, with emphasis added by me in each case. Think about what each one might mean to you in your work:

"Therefore, computing professionals who design and develop systems must be alert to, and make others aware of, any potential damage to the local or global environment." (from section 1.1)

"Well-intended actions, including those that accomplish assigned duties, may lead to harm unexpectedly. ... the responsible person or persons are obligated to undo or mitigate the negative consequences as much as possible." (from section 1.2)

"...obligation to report any signs of system dangers that might result in serious personal or social damage. If one's superiors do not may be necessary to "blow the whistle"..." (from section 1.2)

"...provide full disclosure of all pertinent system limitations and problems." (from section 1.3)

"...with the recognition that sometimes existing laws and rules may be immoral or inappropriate and, therefore, must be challenged." (from section 2.3)

"...must consider the personal and professional development, physical safety, and human dignity of all workers." (from section 3.2)

That last one especially hit home.

Many years ago I was given an assignment to work on a scheduling system that was seriously opposed by the home health care providers who going to be forced to use it. The system was going to provide each health care worker with a daily schedule of who to see, what order to see them in and what time to arrive and depart each home. A device in their vehicles would track where they were at any point in the day. Management loved the idea: (supposed) efficiency and (short term) cost savings were their concerns. There was much talk about how helpful this system would be for everyone. However, in prototype trials, the health care workers found themselves driving back and forth, sometimes recrossing parts of town, cutting short time with patients who needed additional assistance, and feeling as if they had lost control of the all important human interaction part of the healing process.

As I gradually found out all this, and I realized what "my" system was going to do, it sucked. That is the only word for it. I felt a huge ethical dilemma because I was putting my skills as a developer to work on a project that would, in my estimation, degrade the lives of the health care workers and the patients. 

I lucked out that time. The system imploded of its own volition for technical reasons before going live, thus removing the problem from my plate. However, I couldn't forget about it and I decided that I'd never knowingly work on a project that caused harm to others again. Not only that, I decided that from then on I'd pay more attention to learning about the impact of my projects, and not leave it to chance that I'd find out.

One of the things I really like about the ACM Code of Ethics is that if you read it, and think about it in the context of your professional activities, it will likely get you thinking in new ways. Before you find yourself faced with an ethical dilemma at work.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

We are Still Leaning Into or Away From Gender Questions

Hands up please if you have heard something about the controversies surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. Keep your hands up if you have actually read it. How many of you formed an opinion or jumped to conclusions without having read the book?

I haven't read virtually any of the controversy, and I haven't watched the TEDTalk she gave prior to deciding to write the book. Sources tell me (I just love saying that) feedback after the talk led Sheryl to clarify with evidence many of her claims, which as far as I'm concerned shows an admirable receptivity to critique.

Being in the tech world, I can't help but have heard a lot about the whole thing, however I prefer to form my own opinions by going to the source. So I read the book. Sometimes I agreed strongly; sometimes I disagreed. I'm going to focus today on some areas where I resonated with what Sheryl had to say.

Perhaps one area where I have changed the most over the years and where I completely understood what Sheryl was talking about, was when she talked about how pretending that gender doesn't exist, doesn't make it not exist. We are acculturated, especially in the computing industry, to just try and fit in, to believe in a culture of meritocracy.  Sheryl points out - quite accurately in my experience - that gender is always there, just below the surface. It pops up, because as humans, we judge other  humans subjectively even when we think we don't.

I periodically have people tell me "there is no difference between men and women". I used to believe this. I used to operate as if there was no difference, which meant, in reality, that I was trying to be one of the guys. As far back as grade school, long before my life as a computer nerd, I found that the guys never believed for a second that I was a guy no matter how hard I tried to convince them otherwise. It wasn't because I really wanted to be a guy. It was because I learned early on that guys were often doing what I wanted to do and the girls weren't.

Somehow I missed the message that I should want to be doing what the girls were doing. So I busted my childhood butt to be one of the guys. It didn't work as planned, not in 6th grade, nor later in 10th grade, nor as a young software engineer in the 1980s. Just when I would think I was being accepted as an equal, something would come up to remind me we were not the same. In 6th grade it happened when suddenly the rage among the guys was the Playboy Bunny. That little black rabbit head started appearing everywhere in the classroom.

I remember the moment I found out what the bunny referred to and realized there was a problem. I had no idea what to do other than ignore it and pretend it didn't exist. It was about that time the guys threw me out of their fort in the woods and told me I was not welcome. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident but it was not. I wish I could say it doesn't ever happen in 2013 but sometimes it does.

Memory of my bunny  moment flashed through my head as Sheryl wrote about going out to dinner with the tech guys to drink whiskey and smoke cigars, only to find it made her sick. These experiences are not uncommon, and as most of us who have been around a while have come to learn, they aren't simply extracurricular activities that can be ignored. They are part of how important relationships are built and business gets done.

So with regard to those people who tell me there is no difference between women and men, I have come to realize that in most of the cases I encounter, these people are well meaning and are expressing an ideal. But that ideal is not reality. Stating it, and thinking that will make it true, is delusion.

Strong words? Yes. Sheryl talks also about how there is a danger, both perceived and real, to speaking openly about gender. As she puts it, you are wading into deep and muddy waters; it can be a no-win situation. Tar pit is what comes into my mind. On the other hand, there are a lot of very good reasons (discussed at some length in the book) for speaking out.  Professional as well as personal. I suggest you read the book and judge for yourself. Go to the source.

If, after reading Lean In, you want to talk about it with other interested people, Sheryl Sandberg's book is the subject of Global Tech Women's next virtual book club on Friday September 20th at 9am Pacific Time. Everyone is welcome.

In addition to all the practical reasons Sheryl discusses for speaking out, I will add that acknowledging what "is" can be a powerful thing. Living either in denial or ignorance doesn't lead to happiness. Becoming attuned to what is in front of you, in your here and now, has the potential to do so however. Not instantly - there is no free lunch. You have to decide what to do with your reality and taking action is work. Sheryl would call this leaning in.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Growing Pains for Inroads and its Fans

Transitions can be painful even when you realize that the eventual outcome will be a good thing. We tend to get comfortable with how things are and we understand how to operate in that world. Sometimes change catches you by surprise and it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet. There are several unhelpful ways we sometimes react to changes that push us out of our comfort zone, including ignoring the situation and operating as if nothing has changed, becoming defensive, and invoking passive aggressive behaviors.

What Makes A Magazine a Magazine? (only 1 is by ACM)

A few years ago Inroads became ACM Inroads Magazine, and as both a columnist and Associate Editor, I have had the opportunity to watch the growing pains inflicted upon all involved. It is a wonderful thing to be a magazine. ACM has just a few magazines, and joining the ranks of those high quality publications brings many benefits. These include greater exposure for computing education, more diverse articles, more diverse readers, more diverse authors, and more interesting articles.

That last item is really where the rub is. By saying "more interesting" I am not saying that articles were not interesting in the past. (Trying to fend off any rotten tomatoes before they are launched). What I want to say is that a magazine has a rather unique kind of mission. What makes a magazine?

Ask yourself: What do the likes of Wired and People have in common? Seriously. Pretty darned extreme differences (and quality) but between them, and along the whole spectrum, there are some commonalities. How about (feel free to suggest non-snarky additions): articles that grab your attention and suck you in - I mean really suck you in, if well written and if you have even the remotest interest in the subject matter. Articles that don't require in depth subject matter expertise just to get beyond the abstract. What a minute: what abstract? Toss out the abstract. And for heavens sake toss out almost all citations. Perhaps include a few bibliographic references for the interested reader at the end. Toss in visually appealing pages - color! Photos? Diagrams? Toss in engaging relevant pictures that may or may not have data involved....

Which brings me to a bottom line: A magazine is not a research journal. Or a conference publication. Nor should it be approached as one.

That fact can be hard to adjust to for authors and reviewers and readers who are used to publications requiring the setting of a theoretical base, providing a literature review, citing prior and related work, defending every opinion (wait, there aren't supposed to be "opinions" except perhaps in the Discussion section - but even then they had better be thoroughly grounded one way or another), presenting data data and more data, drilling the point home and leaving the reader convinced (if the article is well presented) that no other reasonable conclusion is possible [here I smile, because there is always room for disagreement, even if only on a matter as significant as whether Power was reported]

It isn't that we don't know what a magazine is on an instinctive level. It is just that if we aren't used to reading and writing and reviewing for professional magazines, but for research and conference journals, it can be difficult to adjust. This is what I have been seeing in some cases. It doesn't matter how many times the Editor in Chief points out that Inroads is a magazine: heads nod, but when it comes time to read, write and review...some revert to a way of thinking based on the academic model of evaluating publications. Depending upon the personality involved, this can mean a wide variety of reactions to what is clearly not, nor intended to even come close to, a research article. That is what I have been observing.

It's hard to adjust to change. ACM Inroads Magazine (as I am supposed to refer to it when being official) is breaking new ground, reaching out to the wider computing community (Computer Science, Management Information Systems, Information Technology, Informatics, and others), as well as industry readers and leaders who share an interest in education. ACM Inroads Magazine is moving towards articles that grab your attention, don't require a PhD with a specialization in security to be engaged by an article on security, aren't littered with citations, and trade nailing down every statement of opinion or philosophical viewpoint for thoughtful and sometimes intentionally open ended provocative assertions.

No, ACM Inroads Magazine is not turning into People Magazine. Although it occurs to me I could have a great deal of fun writing a tongue in cheek column about what that might look like. We aren't turning into Wired Magazine either. We aren't sacrificing quality; we are applying standards for top rated magazine quality (most decidedly not People magazine). The magazine format provides us a platform to become incredibly useful to a broad audience interested in computing education. That is a good thing, isn't it?