Who's responsible for the software we build?

On Tuesday April 17 I got to speak at the Amsterdam.rb Amsterdam Ruby User Group, hosted by the friendly folks at Salonized. In the midst of Phusion reviewing their company mission statement and the GDPR deadline in sight I decided to discuss a topic that hits close to home on both aspects. Who is responsible for morality in the stuff we build?

Who is responsible for the software we build? from Phusion B.V. on Vimeo.

The timing of the talk couldn’t have been better, after DHH’s (creator of Ruby on Rails, Founder & CTO at Basecamp) keynote earlier that day, at RailsConf 2018 in Pittsburgh.

"Software has never harmed more people. It has also never helped more people. The two aren't inextricably linked. We have responsibility to make sure that people aren't hurt."

David Heinemeier Hansson — RailsConf 2018

"Software is eating the world, but who is writing that software? You are. You have a moral and ethical responsibility" #railsconf pic.twitter.com/8zR8HdSqOa

— Stella Miranda (@fashionate) April 17, 2018

Cycling from our office to the meetup venue, after watching the Railsconf live stream by confreaks, I felt more and more convinced we (as Phusion and as ‘builders of the web’) have a responsibility to provide a framework for thinking about the ethical implication of our creations.

Many (software) companies start out as a few guys (unfortunately predominantly ‘guys’) wanting to build cool stuff while making good money. Fast forward 10 years and one of those companies - our company, Phusion - has a head count of 10, an office in the center of Amsterdam and customers worldwide. Turns out running a company isn't just about money, fame or even cool products and happy customers. We have a social responsibility towards our employees and society at large.

We've seen companies suffer recently for a lack of that social responsibility (data breaches at Equifax, Facebook, Uber, etc). Public outrage was strong but also burned out quickly as the news cycled. For a while, the same quick fizzle seemed to be happening with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, this time was different. Now, in a positive turn, Silicon Valley veterans are openly questioning the things they built and helped build. That's not to say this bubble of interest for ethical software doesn't have an expiration date as well. Even with the #deletefacebook campaign still strong and Mark Zuckerberg failing to answer even the most basic questions from Congress and the Senate, Facebook's stock is on the rise again.

Yet I’m optimistic to where this discussion will lead, after the feedback from the Amsterdam.rb crowd and the thoughtful questions they posed. I’d be happy to hear from you as well, on Twitter.