ISACA Journal
Volume 6, 2,014 

Columns 

Information Ethics: An Alchemy of C3: Character, College and Computers 

Vasant Raval, DBA, CISA, ACMA 

Over the past two decades, the demand for information systems (IS) knowledge workers has outpaced the supply. During the 1990s, under pressure to meet Y2K date needs, organizations needed programmers. The currency of most application software then was COBOL, so there was a rush to produce competent COBOL programmers. The situation today is no different, only the coding needs have shifted to other areas, such as SQL, Java, Perl or Ruby. If anything, the gap between the demand and supply of code writers has increased vastly worldwide. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projection indicates that by the year 2020, 1,000,000 programming jobs in the US will go unfilled.1

This, of course, is an opportunity for some. To meet the shortage in supply of competent software developers, many universities offer certificate programs, focused exclusively on a specific skill set and little else, all delivered in a rather short span of time, generally no more than one year. Such moves to feed the careerist mind are not limited to established colleges and universities. A whole new cadre of fast-track coding schools has cropped up. Career starters as well as midlife career switchers are welcome at most of these schools. If accepted into the program, all they need to do is go through a rather rigorous training.

Now and in the future, the need to understand how to use computers has gained permanence. Quality of life depends heavily on the ability to use information efficiently and effectively. The ubiquity of technology application has created an advocacy for introducing computer learning from early childhood, as in the case of other universal subjects, such as basic sciences.2 With properly designed curriculum and its delivery, high schools and colleges can help students become more sensitive about ethical dilemmas in the use of technology and how to resolve them.

As noted previously, the other push to introduce more and more specific computer instruction comes from the near-term demand-supply gap in various IT jobs. Noticing the gap, employers pitch to lawmakers that the pipeline for skilled coders, for example, is nearly dry; the lawmakers in turn introduce various legal measures that may help solve the problem. Some demand for skilled coders may be met by offshoring the requirements; however, this is a politically sensitive option. Meanwhile, realizing the potential for economic gains, coding schools are born at home.

But where does all this lead in our dialog on information ethics? My intention is to establish links among three interacting forces of transmutation in this space—character, college education and computers—and suggest certain caveats in terms of information ethics. We first look at the most important element, character, then discuss college—and other institutions of learning—where character should be refined, and finally address computers, where the impact of character and college would be evident.3

Character

To quote former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “The problem of unbridled free markets…is that they can reduce all relationships to transactions, all motivations to self-interest, all sense of value to consumer choice and all sense of worth to a price tag.”4

In a rapid response to today’s pressing needs, we may get blindsided. We miss the understanding that in the long run, what makes a vibrant workforce is not the particular skill, but rather the character of the person. The foundation of optimal life-long development, character strengths are linked to important aspects of individual and social well-being.5 Wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence represent just one classification of character strengths.6

Our moral development, which expresses itself in every volitional choice we make, has to do with our integrity—our will to do right and resist wrong. This can be at any level—physical, mental, moral or spiritual—and in any role, as a family member, employee at work, or leader in business and society. Our disposition defines the bent, or proneness, to make certain choices and walk away from others. Without character strength, despite all the skills and competencies to deliver desired economic outcomes, one may lack the motivation to do the right thing. Character matters; it colors everything for which we live. As a society and individually, it is our duty to avail ourselves of every opportunity to hone our character, often seen as a silent, but relatively stable and dominant, partner in our behavior.

College

Character gets molded throughout one’s life. However, there are two windows where our character is most influenced. First is one’s family. The environment in which the family lives, unwritten rules, rituals and protocols, and the system of punishment and rewards unique to the family forge the child’s character, mostly through vicarious learning. The family leaves a lasting impact on one’s quality of life.

Outside of the family and friends, the other most significant source that hones our character is schools and colleges attended for education. Maturity, judgment, purpose in life and courage, for example, are sharpened in the educational environment through interaction with other students and the faculty or mentors. The practice of character development is consciously embedded in traditional liberal arts colleges. For example, Creighton University, where I teach, believes in development of the whole person, and, in the spirit of living this mission, the campus life and learning fully integrate personal development of the students, not just delivery of skills needed to make a living.

However, many colleges and universities have drifted toward programs for skills development with a view to attract enrollment, often an important source of cash flow for the institution. Business, engineering, law and computer science are among many academic areas where well-paid jobs are more easily found. When more attention is paid to skills development, there is less room to reflect on life’s purpose, justice and service. In other words, the development of the whole person is sacrificed to a degree.

While some colleges and universities are aligning toward feeding the careerist mind, code schools are even more disappointingly positioned. Even if they desire to integrate ethics into their curriculum, there is often little room to do so. Most of these institutions do not have a code of ethics or mission and core value statements. Although detailed curricula are not accessible for these programs, on the surface, it seems they do not have any part of their curriculum devoted to information ethics, for example. After all, to them, what matters is the development of competencies to code—a laser focus on this very specific need.

Now, at the receiving end, people seek careerist development of all kinds. Automakers such as BMW run their own schools to train workers for their factories, and Facebook has its own program to orient new recruits into its specific work life. These are perfectly legitimate options to fill the void between what you know and what it will take to do the job and do it right. On the ethics front, the concern is this: If the schools and colleges that one has attended did not wire the person for ethical awareness and judgment, the job-specific training programs most likely will not offset the need for character development. Besides, ethical awareness is in part affected by the specific context within which ethical dilemmas take shape. A person who learned about, say, Kantian precepts of ethical conduct at a college may not be able to see the ethical dilemma in a programming role, for example. Thus, it is important for the vocational training to weave in context-dependent awareness-building exercises in ethics. If these sensitivities are not developed here, the next best hope is in the employer’s orientation of vocationally qualified recruits. The real risk lies in the possibility that across this value chain, none of the organizations involved has addressed this developmental need.

Computers

Computers, of course, are enablers of almost everything. This includes possibilities of doing good or bad, sometimes even without being aware that you are participating in the deed. As the CBS 60 Minutes episode, “Is the U.S. Stock Market Rigged?,”7 reveals, programming skills were used to create speed advantage (high frequency trades [HFTs]) that extracts millions of dollars of potential gain from the security trades queued to arrive at the exchange. HFT firms used sophisticated computer programs to capitalize on price imbalances (make the market) and, thus, profit at the expense of other market participants who had already queued their transaction on slower networks. If I were a member of the project team that delivered HFT programs, would I be aware of this motive? Or would I just put my head down and code the requirements so that millions of investors can be marginally cheated out of their gains?

Coders are not just coders anymore. Their role is richer than the traditional task of designing and maintaining financial transaction processing programs.8 Whether they are aware or not, they wield great influence. Every bit of automation can be powerful in terms of speed and scale, and the impact of the code could be vast. Therefore, training in coding—and just downright coding only—may not be a good thing. Yes, it makes people viable in finding careers and paychecks, but the potential lack of ethical awareness in the long run could impose significant costs on society as a whole. The coding schools, employers recruiting at such schools and firms that run their own vocation-specific schools with similar objectives should recognize this anomaly and introduce their own requirements to bridge the ethical awareness gap.

An Alchemy of C3

Computers have truly become the lifeline of today’s economies and societies. To prevent ethical lapses with vast impact across the globe, it behooves us to demand accountability from those who wield influence through their skills, including coders. IT knowledge workers should ideally have some college education as a context for personal development and maturity. In its absence, blind following of the rules without exercising professional skepticism could occur. Given the size of potential impact, even one instance of moral compromise is one too many.

Coding schools should consider seriously some minimal requirements on information ethics. It is clear that their curriculum would be “dense” in technical content and challenging deliverables; yet, it is equally clear that some orientation to ethical awareness is not only warranted, but also a responsible thing for the coding schools to do. At the receiving end, talented coders without any prior opportunity for self-development outside of the family environment will benefit from their employer’s program designed to increase awareness of the context within which ethical issues arise on the job. And this goes for not just the career starters, but also for the midlife career switchers. For them, even if they have some college degree, chances are, the context of this new job domain is quite different. Consequently, their awareness may be blunted. They too need help in understanding the context of their work and nuances of consequences they build into applications they write.

The IT profession shoulders heavy responsibility to do the right thing—and even more so in the future as the world gets surrounded by computers. It is critical that we do not reduce all relationships to transactions, all motivations to self-interest, all sense of value to consumer choice and all sense of worth to a price tag.

Endnotes

1 Mims, Christopher; “Programming Is a Trade; Let’s Act Like It,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 August 2014, p. B1, B6
2 “Coding in Schools: A is for Algorithm,” The Economist, 26 April 2014, www.economist.com/node/21601250/print
3 I caution that this discussion may appear disjointed, however, in the end a unified picture emerges.
4 Burns, John F.; Landon Thomas Jr.; “Anglo-American Capitalism on Trial,” The New York Times, 28 March 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/weekinreview/29burns.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
5 Park, N.; C. Peterson; “Character Strengths: Research and Practice,” Journal of College and Character, 10(4), April 2009, p. 1-10
6 Op cit, p. 2-3
7 CBS, “Is the U.S. Stock Market Rigged?,” 60 Minutes, www.cbsnews.com/videos/is-the-u-s-stock-market-rigged-2/
8 Even in this rather straightforward traditional task, it is likely that ethical dilemmas are involved. For example, management asks a programmer to modify the payroll program to include a specific amount as mileage reimbursement and the rest as gross pay where employees are not required to keep any records of their business travel, and the mileage varies across pay periods. What should the programmer do?

Vasant Raval, DBA, CISA, ACMA, is a professor of accountancy at Creighton University (Omaha, Nebraska, USA). The coauthor of two books on information systems and security, his areas of teaching and research interest include information security and corporate governance. Opinions expressed in this column are his own and not those of Creighton University. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

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