Ethical approach to Software Bugs

Ethical approach to Software Bugs

Paul Pagel
Paul Pagel
April 08, 2009

Software bugs are errors or omissions in the work we create. They are our mistakes as software developers. I would like to take a closer look at software bugs, using an ethics metaphor to examine some of the rationale.

I am going to leave defining and dealing with bugs to a blog post I wrote last summer. For the sake of this blog, we fall into three camps: Software Utility, Software Relativism, and Software Craftsmanship.

Software Utility

“Fixing bugs is only important when the value of having the bug fixed exceeds the cost of the fixing it.”—Joel Spolsky

This is the camp of software utilitarianism. I understand applying this rubric in terms of return on investment might have J.S. Mill turning over in his grave, but there is a strong correlation here.

According to Wikipedia:

“Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility.”

Let’s take an example using Mr. Spolsky’s argument. We need to be able to quantify in dollars the value of Bug X. It is worth $1,000 to the company, because the ramifications of not fixing it means we only lose 2% of our user base.

The cost of fixing this bug is $3,000 worth of development time. According to Software Utility, this is a no-brainer. Let the bug go, find something more important and more financially inviting to work on.

The problem here is there are so many unquantifiable variables in the equation. How do you put a dollar amount on instability? When someone tries to reuse the code that has a bug in it, you are spreading the bug throughout the system, literally, like a disease.

You can deal with smaller known bugs now, or you can have them bubble up as diseases later on, where the price of fixing them will grow much higher. The software craftsmanship approach means you don’t have to get into the tricky business of quantifying everything.

Software Relativism

I have heard that:

“My team doesn’t test drive their code, and so I don’t.”

This is software relativism. As famous moral relativist J. L. Mackie argued:

“The objective existence of right and wrong as intrinsically normative entities on fundamental grounds unsure what kinds of things such entities would be, if they existed.”

In software, this is saying that whatever works, works.

Specific practices will be chosen due to their ease or convenience, rather than due to their inherent worth. If I join a team that is making money writing software without testing it, I shouldn’t judge, but do the same. There are no objective rights and wrongs, just a series of things that will work for specific circumstances.

One of the problems is when you get into a negative feedback loop. When everyone is sprinting for the finish line and there are no objective standards, you are going to end up with junk at the other end.

We need a threshold of quality we will not fall below. Otherwise you will end up with a system of piecemeal quality, with parts that are stable and parts that are not stable. This is arguably worse than an unstable system.

Either way, if becomes costly to maintain or just plain unmaintainable. The software craftsmanship approach avoids this problem of relativity by placing minimum objective standards.

Software Craftsmanship

I am calling the third section software craftsmanship because it fits conveniently in line with the software craftsmanship movement. It is based on the ethics of Immanuel Kant, specifically his first formulation of moral theory, which states:

“Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will.“

The classic example is dealing with lying. Can lying for the sake of some other good be considered moral?

Kant says to ask yourself:

“If everyone lied, would the maxim still hold?“

No, our society functions based on a presumption of honesty.

Well, if everyone overlooked bugs or shipped with known bugs would the maxim still hold?

No, software functions based on the presumption of quality. The user expects the software to work.

To me, this means as an aspiring software craftsman, I can not ship with any known bugs. If you make lying acceptable, your neighbor will start to lock their doors. I am afraid that many software users have already locked their doors. So, a software craftsman can not live with bugs in their system.

I ship with no known bugs. As Thomas Jefferson says:

“In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”

Shipping with no bugs and cleaning up my own messes is a matter of pride and principle. It can’t always be done with ease or convenience. And sometimes it means fixing an obscure feature you’re sure no one will use.