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Ethical Dilemma Facing Silicon Techtronix and its Employees

Information Technology Revolution has not been here for too long. Merely 25 years since the first operating system was introduced, the industry has been gaining grounds ever since. New businesses flourish, technologies evolve, customer preferences and requirements change. What does not change is the basic notion of services in this sector. All sorts of business in this sector require services changing from one shape to another, typically involving providing for what the customer desires as the solution to his / her problems.

Companies seeking business in this sector are rampant and hence, occasionally, engage into practices that cannot be termed as ethical, to gauge clients into providing them business to continue their operations, ensuring their existence in the market.

When such divisions fail to bring new business to the organization, operations are either closed or these units are offered for sale to interested companies, resulting in laid off employees, spawning a ‘do or die’ situation asking for the individuals /  divisions to cut corners, engaging in unethical business practices (2009), in order to save themselves from losing employment. These practices are a by-product of a variety of reasons that give rise to such situations and will form parts of this essay in

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subsequent sections.

Mike Waterson, the CEO of Silicon Techtronix, visibly upset with the performance of the robotics division in their last two experimental models CX10 and CX20, threatens to shut down the division, unless they prove success in face of launching their new CX30 industrial robot, ensuring active delivery to Cybernetics Inc. by January 1.

Ray Johnson, who heads the robotics division, wants to make this launch a success and timely. He introduces his ‘Ivory Snow Theory’ to the team that suggests that perfection is not what is required in a project. Simultaneously, he adds 20 more resources to the team to ease up tasks and deliver on time, by pulling up resources from other units, to balance the workload in meeting the deadline set by Waterson.

Sam Reynolds is the new project manager for the CX30 robot, appointed directly by Waterson, to manage this project, replacing John Cramer, previously the project manager on the CX30, due to his sudden demise. Reynolds has over three decades of experience managing projects in the data processing arena, where he has proven his competence over and over again, using the famous Waterfall model of the software development lifecycle that ensures the entire process, comprised of a series of stages, is run only once and the client is not involved till the very end of the project.

Belonging to different arenas, Johnson and Reynolds don’t see eye to eye due to differing approaches, experiences and attitudes towards project management. Owing to data processing, Reynolds thinks perfection can be achieved and is intent at doing this in a single cycle, while Johnson thinks that being good is better than being perfect. This difference of approach forms a major rift between the two individuals bent at suppressing each other, engaging in constant arguments and the absolute misuse of power to achieve goals. However both continue to achieve the purpose at hand, the launch of CX30 before January 01.

Randy Samuels, a software engineer and part of the CX30 project has been highly involved in programming, however lacks the skills of encouraging teamwork, positive criticism and the word of the entire team. He also projects a personality that is aggressive, unyielding and doing whatever it takes to get the task done that may include employing unlawful means. His failure to accept criticism often results in conflicts with other team members.

While in the project team, Samuels writes a part of the module that controls the motion of the robot arm. Samuels fails at two different instances while performing his role in the development of the module for CX30. First, his failure to interpret the formula derived by the physicist to control the robot’s arm and second, his intentional borrowing of the code from a well-known application suite and subsequent insertion into the module. It is important to note that Samuel’s module contains a serious problem in methodically controlling the robot’s arm. During code review, Samuels amends the function and forwards it to quality assurance. The problem is still present in the function written by Samuels.

Cindy Yardley is a member of the testing team for the project, responsible for ensuring that the code works in accordance with the requirements put forward by the client, Cybernetics Inc. While competent on her job, division chief Johnson coerces her into faking the test results that pose a problem in Samuels’ code, with those that show success in testing the module, by supporting her actions as an act of morality in saving her and team member’s jobs. The CX30 is tested and passed for user training.

Approximately forty hours of training are to be allocated for training however, only eight to nine hours’ session is provided. Serious messages and actions to perform in case of exceptional conditions are not communicated.

The CX30 is launched on time and delivered to Cybernetics Inc. for its industrial setting. Each robot requires a trained operator to control its operations. Bart Matthews is the first operator for the CX30 robot, and uses it to complete his tasks. While operating one day, Bart performs a function that results in an error, which he notices after some moments. Diagnosing the error message, he fails to respond in time, and with the robot’s arm swinging wildly, becomes prey to the accident that causes him his life.

Ethical Concerns in the Killer Robot Case

This story has been in the eye of the media for a long time that has turned on every source there is to provide information about the process that led to CX30, the people involved and the practices adhered to. A study of the case study leads me to believe that following concerns with regards to ethics and professionalism were set aside to meet the January 01 deadline of the robot’s launch:

  1. Failure to assign leadership responsibility appropriately – Michael Waterson’s assignment of Sam Reynolds as the project manager for the CX30 project, just to save costs, time and external resistance faced in acquiring a new resource to do the job, disregarding the fact that Reynolds has no prior experience of the robotics division’s projects, is a highly important concern, and raises the question of professionalism in the organization to ensure that each individual is fit for the job he / she’s assigned to do. In case of any gaps, appropriate trainings are to be provided to get the individual onboard the new dimension in which he / she is expected to perform.
  2. Coercion does not drive results – Mike Waterson’s coercive statements to shut down the robotics division that ultimately lead to the entire team forced to cut corners in their parts, to get things done, are of a high concern today, as it is the case with many companies in this sector that, in view of an approaching deadline, coerce employees for their jobs to get things in time, at which moment employees are forced to cut corners in order to save their and other’s jobs. It is both unprofessional and unethical approach to ensuring delivery on time, compromising quality, reputation, effort, stress and approaches that might not be appropriate for the employees forced to complete the task, but inevitable to use. Again, another case of effective coercive use of power involves Ray Johnson coercing Cindy Yardley to fake the test results of Bart Matthew’s module by inducing the fear of jobs of the entire robotics division.
  3. It is quality that matters, not quantity. Injecting more employees doesn’t mean to ensure the job will be completed – Ray Johnson’s addition of 20 new employees into the robotics employee pool to balance the workload, ignoring the fact that it is actually the project itself and not the resources that require more time and effort to ensure things go smoothly.
  4. Software Projects are a ‘Team’ Effort – Randy Samuels’ approach towards software development and egoless programming. Software is a large bundle of complex, interrelated modules / functions aimed at accomplishing a common goal. Similar is the case with a team that develops various parts of the application that must be in complete harmony and synchronization to get the job done. It is a collective, rather than an individual’s effort that results in good quality software. Randy’s use of copyrighted software code to develop his part of the module that ultimately results in the death of an operator, is unethical, unprofessional and illegal. At this very point, the company bears equal responsibility if it fails to determine that any part of the software has been illegally obtained and used in the software project under its belt.
  5. Reliability of the project prior to release – Software reliability and safety of its operations prior to releasing to users is of extreme importance, failure of which could result in the loss of precious lives. A software project that is slightly unreliable should not be put in for use that involves intervention and interaction with humans.
  6. Respecting the privacy – Every individual has the right to keep information belonging to him / her secret and disclosing it only to the intended recipients. In the case of Silicon Techtronix, the company failed to respect the privacy, keeping taps on individuals as well as disclosing that information to the media, is highly unethical.

Ethical Considerations – In light of BCS Code of Conduct

After examining the BCS Code of Conduct and the case study, I conclude that such codes of ethical, professional and moral conduct should be appropriately enforced in organizations in the Information Technology industry, which is relatively newly and maturing with the passage of time. Failure to do so could and possibly has resulted in violation of this code at many occasions in the Killer Robot case study.

The BCS CoC[1] clearly indicates that individuals should act with responsibility, in the interest of fairness, safety and due diligence in serving the interests, as individuals as well as in teams, to ensure that all requirements are appropriately met, keeping the satisfaction of the customers, the relevant authorities and the subordinates in high regard. This also deals with supporting each other and drawing a fine line between what is permitted as ethical, legal and professional and what is not. Examination of some of the roles in this case study in light of the BCS CoC yields a number of violations, most significantly:

  1. Sam Reynolds – Manager CX30 Robot Project
    1. Code 1, under The Public Interest, stating that in case of any judgment overruled, the risks and consequences should be addressed and communicated to the relevant authorities or discussed with the peers to respond in the best possible manner. Sam Reynolds failed to communicate the risks involved in the project, in adding incompetent resources to the team, as well as failure to assert his authority to influence team members to ensure that all tasks are performed with complete responsibility, not negligence, as done by Randy Samuels.
    2. Code 15, under Professional Competence and Integrity, clearly stating that an individual should not claim any level of competence, if not possessed. A self-assessment should be performed before undertaking a particular role. Sam Reynolds was unable to assess his skills with managing the technical and managerial aspects of the robotics project, resulting in failure.
  2. Ray Johnson – Head of the Robotics Division
    1. Code 2, under The Public Interest states that any action should be performed with regard to the safety, security and health of the public. Ray ignored this by coercing his authority unlawfully on Cindy Yardley to fake the tests on the problematic module written by Samuels that resulted in the release of a defected robot, causing the life of Bart Matthews. Had this been checked and reported at appropriate time, such an incident would not have occurred.
    2. Code 9, under Duty to Relevant Authority, clearly states that it was Johnson’s responsibility to disclose the erroneous module to Waterson or Reynolds prior to releasing the product to Cybernetics Inc. Withholding this information, and non-disclosure resulted in loss of company reputation, and most preciously, the life of an individual, in the run for releasing the product on time.
  3. Max Worthington – Chief Security Officer
    1. Code 9, under Duty to Relevant Authority. While it seems that Worthington did the right thing to disclose email communication between Johnson and Yardley, it violates the rights to privacy and confidentiality of messages between two individuals.
    2. Code 12, under Duty to the Profession, indicates violation by Worthington with regard to come up in the press and disclosing information, unqualified to do so. Max’s actions, releasing information to press under the alias ‘Martha’ also is morally and ethically unacceptable as well as illegal, as he was not allowed to do so.

What Should Be Done?

There is no one solution to this problem, or a philosophy that can be developed to deal with issues of an entire industry. However, a combination of approaches can lead to a better handling of this situation:

  1. Software development and engineering involves a lot of teamwork between individuals cooperating to reach a unified goal. In such cases, focusing on the Utilitarian (Garrett, 2008) approach would enable enhanced performance, greater than the combined effort of every member, focusing on his individual performance.
  2. At the same time, actions of individuals should be judged based on the task achieved, giving rise to a flavor of deontological (Kay, 1997) theory as well, discussing that duty based ethics are also extremely important that emphasize on the manner in which actions are performed.
  3. I have also noticed that although various standards and code of ethics developed by organizations such as IEEE (IEEE, 2009), ACM (ACM, 1992) and BCS (BCS, 2009) have been published however they are not regulated in a manner apt for an industry growing at such a rapid pace.
  4. There are a large number of software development methodologies (Lore) that have been created for different purposes however none of them have been standardized for use in a specific setting or organizational circumstances. Also, the adoption of a specific cycle does not ensure that all its processes and stages are being effectively followed. Cycles are most often modified to fit the structure and working of the organization, without strict adherence to the industry’s best practices. The processes should be legalized in such a manner that taking on a process ensures its best use, according to the stages provided in to process, so that all the milestones are achieved in the manner which is acceptable for both the vendor as well as the customer.

Works Cited

ACM. 1992. ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. [Online] October 16, 1992. [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://www.acm.org/about/code-of-ethics.

BCS. 2009. Code of Conduct. [Online] 2009. [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://www.bcs.org/server.php?show=nav.6030.

Ethical Theories and Professional Ethics. The Computer Action Team. [Online] 2009. [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://web.cecs.pdx.edu/~li/cs305/ethics_s.pdf.

Garrett, Ron. 2008. Ethical Issues in Software Development. Scribd. [Online] 2008. [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://www.scribd.com/doc/10880744/Ethical-Issues-in-Software-Development.

IEEE. 2009. IEEE Code of Ethics. [Online] 2009. [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://www.ieee.org/portal/pages/iportals/aboutus/ethics/code.html.

Kay, Charles D. 1997. Notes on Deontology. [Online] 1997. [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://webs.wofford.edu/kaycd/ethics/deon.htm.

Lore. Software Engineering. Lore. [Online] [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://www.lore.ua.ac.be/Teaching/SE3BAC/slidesHandouts2007/12ConclusionPrnt.pdf.

Rouncefield, Mark. 2008. Dependability and Ethics – The Case of the Killer Robot. Computing Department Lancester University. [Online] 2008. [Cited: February 15, 2009.] http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/~rouncefi/Ethics.ppt.

[1] CoC – Code of Conduct

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