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July 23, 2021 17:22 +0100  |  Climate Change Employment Ethics 1

I made a career decision a few months ago that I've meant to document here for a while now. I left my previous job at Workfinder that was making me miserable, for an amazing job with a green energy company called Limejump.

The people I work with are wonderful. They're both technically capable and respectful human beings. I'm not just talking about my immediate colleagues either. In my 7 months with the company, this has been my experience with everyone I've worked with there -- all the way up to the CEO. People are friendly, enthusiastic, and professional. The team collectively owns mistakes and works together toward common goals that we (the business and engineering) establish together. Seriously, it's pretty great.

I cannot stress enough how powerfully black & white the move has been for me. To come from a job where the higher-ups regularly micromanaged, second-guessed, and belittled everyone and then shoved us under the bus when things went wrong, to where I am now is really quite jarring. I'd spent so much time being miserable that I'd forgotten what it was like to work with decent people.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I'm here to remind you that not every company is as toxic as the one you're stuck in. If you have options, get out while you can! Hell, if you can roll code, I might be able to find you a spot with us.

So yeah, that's the good news: I'm finally happy in a job again. I'd forgotten what that was like, so the experience still leaves me a bit giddy, even after 7 months.

"So why the dire-sounding title?" I hear you asking. Well, Limejump comes with a significant piece of baggage that I had to unpack and come to terms with before accepting the job. That's the real topic of this post: Limejump is owned by Shell.

Yes, that Shell.

If you know me personally, it's likely that you know that I have some hard lines I don't cross for employment. I don't do guns, I don't do fossil fuels, and I certainly don't do anything illegal. The reasoning behind this is one of conscience, but it's also rational: gaining financially from destroying the world you have to live in makes absolutely no sense. Shell violates the fossil fuel rule fundamentally, and historically has a long documented history of Evil under its belt.

And yet, here I am, taking a paycheque from Shell, and to my mind, doing so with my morals intact. That probably sounds antithetical, so let me explain:

The way I see it, Shell is a publicly-traded company that must, like any other, do evil. It's insane, but this is how capitalism works: a publicly-traded company can't knowingly refrain from doing evil if doing so means that it will make less (or even lose) money for its shareholders. If your goal then is to save the earth from companies like Shell, you have but two choices:

  1. Make Shell illegal. Sue them into oblivion or figuratively kill them by revoking their charter to exist.
  2. Find a way to make doing evil less profitable than doing good.

To be clear, I am all for Option #1, but no amount of screaming from my blog is going to work on that front, so unless activists and human rights lawyers have a need for some high-level software design, I'm afraid I'm not much use to that cause. I have however been offered an opportunity to move on option #2.

Limejump is doing something extremely ambitious and technically difficult: we're developing a framework for consolidating disparate green energy sources into a sort of distributed power plant that compensates for all of the fluctuations inherent in green energy solutions. Sometimes the wind isn't blowing, and the sun isn't always shining, and yet you need power for your laptop at 3am.

The number of companies on the planet even bothering to try to solve this problem is tiny and almost none of them have the sort of resources that Shell brings to the table. If we can prove that this is viable (spoiler alert: it definitely is, we're doing it), then the reality of free, limitless energy becomes a serious "carrot" to pull companies like Shell away from fossil fuels. Combine that with the "stick" in actions like Extinction Rebellion, law suits, rising fuel prices, and political pressure, and I believe that you can steer this earth-killing beast of a ship into a force for Good. Not because I believe that a company can have a conscience (it can't), but because that's where the money is.

Until or unless Option #1 can happen, this sort of work needs to be done, so I took the job. I hope it was the right choice and that I'm not being naïve. I suppose that's a question for Future Me, but for right now, it honestly feels like the Right decision.

December 15, 2016 18:56 +0000  |  Engineering Ethics 6

Something amazing is happening in my industry right now and I want to take a minute to talk about it.

Americans are freaking out. They're staring down the barrel of the very real possibility that the Trump administration will draw up lists of Muslims living the United States. This is a dangerous first step toward dictatorship and the end of rule of law, and those of us paying attention are understandably worried.

The American engineering community is slowly arriving at a state of self consciousness though: a few of them have banded together and written a pledge stating in short, that if the US government wants to build technology to destroy the country, then they're going to have to find someone else to do it:

We, the undersigned, are employees of tech organizations and companies based in the United States. We are engineers, designers, business executives, and others whose jobs include managing or processing data about people. We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies. We refuse to build a database of people based on their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.

We have educated ourselves on the history of threats like these, and on the roles that technology and technologists played in carrying them out. We see how IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust, contributing to the deaths of six million Jews and millions of others. We recall the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. We recognize that mass deportations precipitated the very atrocity the word genocide was created to describe: the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey. We acknowledge that genocides are not merely a relic of the distant past—among others, Tutsi Rwandans and Bosnian Muslims have been victims in our lifetimes.

Today we stand together to say: not on our watch, and never again.

And they didn't stop there. They've done what engineers do best, they built something: a platform to allow other people to add their names. The list currently stands at 1239 people with new pull requests (the process by which people request to be added) happening so fast that they literally have had problems keeping up.

What's more, the whole thing is being developed in the open and you can watch the process unfold. Just yesterday afternoon I was following this ticket where they were debating how to solve the onslaught of applicants and introduce some uniformity for scale. The software chosen was Free, Open, and conforming to a universal standard that's easy to follow.

What's exciting about this, for me at least, is that this could very well be the beginning of a Code of Ethics for software engineering: developed in the open by ourselves, in an effort to operate as a community for the greater good.

Ethics in engineering is nothing new of course. The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer has been a thing in Canada since 1922 in an effort to make sure that, in the interest of the Public Good, engineers who built bridges would adhere to ethics rather than employer directives.

Historically however, software engineering has been a Wild West of people doing whatever they want, with zero focus on the ethics of what we're doing. It's my hope that if anything comes out of a Trump presidency, a sense of responsibility for our actions should be it.

There's a lot of potential here. In an ideal world, I'd like to see companies and Free software projects adopting a policy of only collaborating with engineers who have signed the pledge: a simple declaration that we are thinking people with moral compasses who are responsible for our actions. In much the same way that companies, conferences, and projects have codes of conduct, I think it's time that we acknowledge that ethics should be an integral part of what we do.

This is just one project though, and a rather US-centric one at that, so I'm not sure it has the legs required to get us to where I think we need to be, but it's a start, and I'm absolutely thrilled that we're finally having this conversation.

November 22, 2009 22:30 +0000  |  Capitalism Ethics TheChange.com 0

I've been thinking about my own views on capitalism lately. It makes sense, I suppose when you consider that I'm co-founding a for-profit company with an intent to build something so useful that my shares in it would be worth a great deal of money. Add to that the fact that I've been re-negotiating my employment contract with Work [at] Play so that I might better apply my time & energy to this new venture and how I view capitalism becomes pretty important.

Basically, I see my role in a capitalist system as one of maintaining fairness for those involved. In other words, I don't want to make millions of dollars (honestly, what would I do with it?) Rather, I just want to be sure that the profits generated from my work aren't being disproportionately distributed.

To me, any capitalist model should be founded on the understanding that all parties involved stand to profit from their work equally based on the risk endured and the effort applied. In an employer-employee situation, wages are more than the trading of time for money (though they're that too). Wages are also a statement that the employer acknowledges that they wouldn't have a company without the employee and that in recognition of this fact, a reasonable portion of the profits are allocated to them.

I think that a lot of people share my views on this, but don't realise it. They're bitter that person X is paid more or less than person Y but can't explain why. In a co-venture, a lack of understanding can kill the partnership, so knowing the motivation behind those involved is always a good idea. My partner and I are on the same page on this, and I honestly think that it relieves a lot of potential tension.

On a related note, I found this link today that I thought I'd share. It's loosely related, titled "How to Fix Capitalism".

May 30, 2006 16:54 +0100  |  Capitalism Ethics 0

So what do you do when you're a multi-million dollar company stuck with product you know to be contaminated with HIV? Well the most logical thing of course: pack it up and ship it off to Europe where you know it will kill thousands, even millions.

But big companies can be trusted, oh yes. They do, after all, "have a brand to protect".

Thanks to Laura who found the above link as well as the corroborating story.