My failure as Lara Croft

Tomb raider figure coming out of a computer screen.

Quest: a long or arduous search to find something.

I considered a lot of words for what I wanted to write this week:

  • Assiduous, to describe my perseverance on this topic.
  • Lassitude, to describe a condition of lazy indifference.
  • Specious, to describe the lack of merit in the reasons I've heard.

Clearly, I'm disappointed about something. And I'm going to tell you all about it. (So you can't say that women never tell you what's bothering them. )

The story of a course - and my first disappointment

The Incus Data course list evolves over time. Many of our courses were developed because a client wanted training on some technology in our field of expertise. It's common for us to be asked about training that we don't currently offer.

In 2018 I received a call from the training manager at a software development company. She asked an interesting question: Could we present a course on Coding Ethics?

If you've been on one of our courses, you know that we believe in the importance of good coding practice. Add that to my legal background (6 years in criminal law), and you can guess my response. I absolutely loved the idea. In fact, I couldn't understand why I'd never thought of it before.

I spent the next month doing research to develop a one-day seminar on coding ethics. And then the client who wanted it said that there wasn't budget for it any more.

That was my first disappointment.

The story of a survey - and my second disappointment

My efforts weren't entirely wasted. Later in 2018 the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) sent a group of lecturers on the course.

After the course, the two most senior lecturers approached me with a proposal. They wanted to do a survey on software ethics in SA. They saw it as a way to drive change in the TUT curriculum. And as academics, they could always publish a paper about it.

I spent weeks designing, creating and testing the survey. We expanded it to cover the software engineering industry, not just programmers. We created three versions: one for industry (that's you), one for students, and one for academia at the universities of technology. Then we applied for approval from the TUT Ethics Research Committee, a review board registered with the US Office for Human Research Protections and the National Health Research Ethics Council. That took about a year.

We got approval shortly before the lockdown in March 2020. The plan was that I would drive the industry survey, and the TUT lecturers would drive the student and academia versions. Despite lockdown, we went ahead.

Our sales team contacted clients and asked them to participate. You will remember that I wrote about it in my weekly emails and on our blog. I asked for your help to reach as many developers as possible.

And that was my second disappointment: the lack of response.

This is where I considered using the word specious. Because the two most common excuses were:

  • "Our developers don't have time."
    Really? We're talking about 10-15 minutes. If you honestly believe you can't afford that much time, then you have some serious problems.
  • "We have to discuss it with management / corporate compliance / some other department."
    Why? It's completely anonymous. No email addresses, no IP addresses, no company names, no privacy issues, no risks.

Perhaps the real reason is lassitude. My TUT colleagues only got a 43% response rate from their fellow academics. I thought that was unsatisfactory - but it's better than the response I got. (They decided to close the survey for academia and students, and have already written 4 papers on the topic.)

My Lara Croft quest

Indiana Jones was the first name that came to mind when I thought of someone on a quest. But apparently that's a bit dated, so I thought the Lara Croft reference might work.

So what is my real quest? What do I truly want? I want the answer to a question I've asked myself since 2018:

Why are none of our clients interested in a course on software ethics?

More than 80% of people who attended my webinar on Programmers, Power and Responsibility had never heard of a code of ethics for software developers. (You can watch the recording if you are interested.) So I know the answer is not that you already know all about it.

I don't have the answer. I'm hoping you do. And I'm hoping you'll share it with me - either on the blog post or by a quick email.

Final update on the survey

We closed the survey at the end of 2021 with a sad total of 104 responses. Over 1000 people received an email about this on more than one occasion.

I think the lack of response says more about the state of ethics in our industry than any survey answers.

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