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Developers: Mercenaries for hire?

ardennl profile image Arden de Raaij ・3 min read

I'm always honoured when people find my work and want to hire me based on what they saw (except for recruiters who don't know their shit, that's just an insult). So naturally I was stoked to be contacted by a company who found my work on Codepen (which was a first for me) and had just the right job for me. They were not messing around and within no-time I had a pleasant but no-BS Skype call with a developer. They had work for a longer period and were also looking for a full-time front-end developer. I wasn't looking for full-time commitments but when I can work on the things I like for a company that made a good first impression, I won't rule anything out. Oh and did I mention that they were totally open to remote work? Sweet.

Not so sweet

But then I had the stupid idea to Google some more background info on the company, and unfortunately, what I found didn't make me happy. Bad reviews on the first page... That's never a good sign, is it? Now I won't give you a company name or anything, but I think I can safely tell you that they're ticket brokers. If you don't know why that makes many people unhappy, read this excellent Guardian article on the subject.

Empathy

Now don't let the holier-than-though post about 'ethics in tech' I posted a few days ago fool you because the thought "So what if dumb people overpay for tickets?" did cross my mind.

There's no single celebrity I worship enough to pay an arm and a leg for to see in concert. And if people are stupid enough to keep on providing these places with business, why should I care?

As it turns out: I do care. They call this empathy I believe. However dumb it is to buy your tickets through a place like this, I still feel sorry for the people who seriously overpay.

A comic with Calvin and Hobbes in the frame having a conversation. Hobbes: "Is it a right to remain ignorant?" Calvin: "I refuse to find out"

Accessible, so everyone can waste $$$!

I know there's no such thing as a developers Hippocratic oath (because most companies would go out of business if there was) but the least I can do is not actively support evil with my 'powers'. As a front-end developer I want to make sure that sites and apps are accessible, effective and hopefully a joy to look at and experience. In this case I'd literally be helping a company to get money out of peoples pockets in the most fun and accessible way! So I declined, explained why and they understood.

Although I don't agree with the business model I try not to judge other developers. If i'd been strapped for cash and had actual adult responsibilities, I might've cared less about Shirley spending her entire pay-check on a Coldplay concert (in fact I probably won't think too highly off you when you spent money on a Coldplay concert, regardless). I'd like to think that wouldn't be the case but you never know in what kind of situation you'll find yourself in.

"When you look at the dark side, careful you must be ... for the dark side looks back." - Yoda, in some obscure movie

A fine line

Most of the times the line between dark and light is non-existent. It's a grey world out there and everyone needs to find out what they're okay with for themselves. But I do feel that we should constantly ask ourselves if we're okay with the actual product that the companies we work for offer. The company you work at/for can be great for its employees and freelancers, but in the end LexCorp isn't less evil because they offer equal pay.

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So what kind of mercenary are you? Have you ever declined a job because of ethical reasons? I'd love to read all about it.

Posted on by:

ardennl profile

Arden de Raaij

@ardennl

Front-end developer based in Lisbon, co-founder of cfye.com and enjoyer of beaches and waves.

Discussion

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We're in the privileged position as sort of "technical gatekeepers" where, with sufficient information and enough previous experience, you usually get to be pretty selective about where you work beforehand. I think the trouble comes when you've already signed on and you get railroaded by these things after the fact. That becomes a much harder situation to navigate.

I've never done "unethical" work, but I have certainly done some work with people who I thought didn't care about people outside their narrow view of the world, and I find it hard to go to work with these people. Like, you know if there is some ethical boundary, you'll always have to be the one to bring up the issue and it becomes exhausting. It's much better to work with people who are openminded and interested in being ethical in general.

 

Thank you for weighing in Ben!

It'll definitely be harder to make the right call when you already drank the cool-aid, knowingly or not. That's all the more reason to continuously think about the service/product and if that agrees with your conscience.

I can happily say I haven't found myself in the situation of working with unethical people yet, but I can imagine that it's not a joy! A bit of empathy goes a long way.

A related question: Have you worked on things that weren't unethical but of which you felt they weren't doing anyone any good either?

For example, I've worked on some action sites of which I could only think that they were a gigantic waste of money and resources. Money that partly went into my pockets though. And I give to charity, so that's about even... ;).

 

I've definitely turned down positions at places that approached me where I didn't feel comfortable with some aspect of their cultures (developer, corporate, or otherwise). Although I recognize that there's a lot of inherently amoral business conducted that ultimately helps many people day-to-day, I need to know that my efforts aren't going toward helping a business screw people over in order to line someone else's pockets.

This obviously cuts out a lot of potential positions, and sometimes the pay is not as great as it could be, but I think I'm happier not questioning my integrity all the time.

I worked in a rather soul-crushing corporate position once, and I'm glad it was both a limited stint and the only position like it that I've taken. Although my work was not going toward harmful aims, it felt like a lot of it was just going into a black hole because things were so mismanaged on all fronts.

 

That first paragraph of your comment kinda sums it all up, doesn't it? "I need to know that my efforts aren't going toward helping a business screw people over in order to line someone else's pockets." Is exactly what we should be thinking.

I think the black hole you're talking about might be even worse at times. I feel like working for evil can be prevented by keeping your own ethics in check but I'm sure just about everyone has come across projects that are mismanaged, useless and all in all just a waste of time, money and resources.

 

Great article, while I'm a software mercenary I try to help clients make ethical decisions about the software. I've also been strapped for cash in the past and needed to work for a very evil company. One of these days I'll have to be brave enough and talk about it publicly.

 

Thanks! If you're in the position to influence others to make ethical decisions, that's awesome.

However I don't think you should feel forced to talk about the experience at soul-sucking inc, even if you wrote the software that shreds kitties. Although if you want to share, there's probably something to learn out of it!

 

Thanks for your reply David! From your posts I gather you put quite some thought in the state of software development, that's something I can value!

whenever I've sat down to figure out whether I've actually made things better the answer has always been yes.

That's nice. As I replied to Ben, I don't think everything I do and did always moved towards a better world. Some things just seemed to be a bit of a waste of resources. I've never felt too bad about it though, but I couldn't imagine doing that all the time.

I guess aligning values with sustainable work is the ultimate goal, but sometimes I have to settle with some of the values some of the time.

"Don't be evil" has always sounded weird to me, like something a parent with low expectations would tell their child.

 

I do remember an instance that set an alarm where the CEO of a startup I was newly hired at years ago, in a tech meeting, vented the idea of charging people's credit cards for more than a month of subscription hoping they wouldn't notice because the single amount was low.

We were all flabbergasted and refused to do it.

The startup closed shop a few months later because, as far as I know, the CEO allegedly committed fraud in other ways.

Another example, which is not illegal and probably ethical strictly speaking but still worries me: in Android there's an API which nobody tells users about where you can read the list of all the apps someone has installed. I've been asked to prepare the backend to store that info and I did it.

There's a LOT of info you can understand about a customer by silently analysing which apps they have installed on their phone.

I wish Android would remove that API, iOS doesn't have it.

 

I very much believe that we as developers are responsible for the products that we create. So many bad things have happened and do happen because people just do what they are told to.

Years back I left the software business to work in a job where my software is supposed to help people instead of working for companies that are just in it for the money.

Also see my short article on responsibility as developers: dev.to/t4rzsan/be-a-responsible-de...

I think you did well in following your guts and declining the job.

 

So many bad things have happened and do happen because people just do what they are told to.. That's very true and something I also tried to put into wording in my previous blogpost: dev.to/ardennl/we-never-imagined-ccb.

And that article about the responsibility of developers is RIGHT on the money. Thank you for sharing that.

I'm also happy I declined although I do have to admit, I had to think about it and discuss it with a few people around me before I made up my mind.