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The Dark Side of Software Engineering: Evil on Computing Projects

Revealing the Shadows of Software Engineering

by Timothy Procter

In The Dark Side of Software Engineering, Johann Rost and Robert Glass take us down paths that might be a little uncomfortable. They shine a spotlight into neglected corners of the profession and ask questions to explore what lies hidden in them. They go with all caps on “EVIL THINGS” on page 1, which they see as aspects of professional ethics that are ignored on computing projects because they make people uncomfortable.

At a first pass, some of the chapters don’t seem closely related. What does subversion (chapter 1) have to do with whistle-blowing (chapter 7), and what do either of them have to do with hacking (chapter 3)? The common thread is that they focus on behaviors you normally wouldn’t want to acknowledge on a project you’re working on.

Rost and Glass explore these dark topics not as experts with all the answers, but as researchers with all the questions. They use survey data, real-life stories, and personal experience to evaluate hypotheses. This is especially noticeable in first two chapters (on subversion and lying), where the authors describe their own survey research and analyze the findings. For the subversion topic, they also do a follow-up survey to test their hypotheses about the factors that influence subversion and how pervasive it is. For example, they derive the hypothesis based on survey data that “The organization can be structured in a way to that subversive stakeholders are not tolerated”(p. 60), which they then evaluate with a follow-up survey.

The subsequent chapter-topics lean more heavily on anecdotes and case studies. Hacking gets a good overview in chapter 4 and leads nicely into information theft (chapter 5) and espionage (chapter 6). These chapters don’t go into great detail on these but cover the main points.

In a lot of ways, the dark side is about people, so the book wouldn’t be complete without some discussion of disgruntled employees involved in sabotage (chapter 6) and whistle-blowing (chapter 7). About whistle-blowing, Rost and Glass make the point that its effects are sometimes negative, as in leaks, despite a popular view of it as a positive action.

Overall, I liked this book. It increased my awareness of the types of behaviors that can and do cast shadows in the profession, and it offers some suggestions about how to notice and reduce the shadows. However, you won’t find clear or definitive answers to the problems. My sense is that the authors want to open discussions as opposed to closing them and that they would be glad to hear from readers who want to contribute their experience and ideas. In fact, chapter 9 (“Personal Anecdotes”) consists entirely of submitted content, and nearly every chapter has stories and quotations from people that have responded to their work.

Timothy Procter is a technical manager at the Pythian Group. Contact him at timprocter@ieee.org.