- read

To Succeed Through Deceit — An Ethical Problem in Software Development and Sales

Avidan Sascranel 42

Fix the cause, not the symptom. — Steve Maguire

Honesty doesn’t always pay, but dishonesty always costs. — Michael Josephson

Selling the Want While Ignoring the Need

To begin, let’s begin with a hypothetical. You are out to buy a car but have no idea how cars are built and which car is considered good or bad. You walk up to the salesperson at a dealership and tell them you want the coolest, fastest, car with a pinch of uniqueness that can’t be found anywhere else and readily admit that you know next to nothing about cars outside of what they are supposed to do, what they look like, and what you are looking to get from one. At this point, the salesperson asks you what your budget is, and you say about fifty thousand dollars. The salesperson nods and says they will do their best. At this point, you have already officially made the salespersons day — they spend their life selling to people just like you and they go out, find a manufacturer, then design a nice expensive car that appears to check all your boxes. Once they have the design figured out, they show it to you. It is cool. It is fast. It has just the right amount of uniqueness. Your mouth nearly drops open and you can’t wait to buy it. The salesperson smiles with delight and tells you the price, seventy-five thousand dollars, and there is a chance the end price is a bit higher. You are surprised and think the price is high, so ask the salesperson what happened. The salesperson explains to you that what you are needing is a bit more complex than what you are considering and therefore will cost a bit more. They then explain to you that building a car is not an exact science and there is always potential for certain costs to go up unexpectedly. You take a deep breath and think about it for a second. At this juncture you can either continue down the path you are on, or you can go somewhere else where you will probably be told the same thing. The answer appears to be clear, you will continue down the path you are on. You buy the car. The manufacturer builds it, then it gets delivered to you with an ending price tag of ninety-five thousand dollars. You would have been shocked if it wasn’t for the fact that the salesperson informed you of the incremental rise in price as the car was being built — and all while reminding you that it was something that happens when building cars. Now that you have a new shiny car, you take it into town with pride. Then all of a sudden, not too long later, the car breaks down. You take the car to a repair shop and they look at you in surprise then ask why you bought the vehicle. You explain to them how cool, fast, and unique the car is. The repair shop employees happily agree that it is cool, fast, and unique but begin to tell you that the vehicle is prone to defects and problems. It turns out that the manufacturer of the vehicle focused heavily on the way it looked and when it came to focusing on how the car drove, they made sure it went fast but didn’t go any further than that. Over the long term, the vehicle was only ever going to be a money pit. You begin to think that you need to sell the car and get a different one but immediately come to the realization that no one else wants that unique of a car. You are stuck with the money pit.

With this hypothetical in mind, I would like to delve into who is at fault. Legally speaking, the person buying the car is at fault. However, that doesn’t make everyone else involved blameless or in the right. The salespeople are ethically at fault — they knew they were selling a vehicle prone to serious problems. The manufacturer of the vehicle in question is ethically at fault — they released the vehicle while knowing of its problems and defects. So how did it all happen and how did everything get this bad? Well, the manufacturer and salespeople focused on what you wanted and came up with a plan — because at the end of the day that is what you are buying — a series of wants that you have disguised as needs. Then, to make the most money, the manufacturer worked with the seller to find the cheapest way to get you what you wanted and since you don’t know much about cars and how they are made, and how they are supposed to work, you were blind to all their schemes.

As crazy as the above hypothetical sounds, it is exactly what happens every day in software development sales. In my career, I was responsible for building the software (or the car if we are talking about the hypothetical). I would see the problems and protest but was told to get it done or I would be replaced — so I would just put my head down and build it. Today, I am not proud of that fact and wish I could go back in time and change that. However, this is not even the end of the hypothetical — there happens to be so much more to the story.