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By Jack Ganssle

Code of Ethics

Published January, 2014 on embedded.com

With the advent of a new year, it's not a bad time to step back and think about first principles.

After 40 years of being an engineer I've come to view this as a truly noble profession, one in which we change the world, often radically, and more often than not for the good. The America of my youth would be unrecognizable to young people today, changed in no small way by entirely new technologies invented and perfected by members of our profession. Today engineers are developing ideas that will surely continue to improve the lot of the human race.

Some will counter that there's blowback; that sometimes our products have unanticipated and undesirable side-effects. That's true, of course. We're human and not smart enough to know everything. But I remain a technology optimist. We will figure this stuff out.

Others will complain that the ideas are mismatched to their intended use; in a recent radio diatribe the "expert" claimed the Gates Foundation's efforts to invent an accessible toilet for the poorest of the world was a lousy idea because, at $1k each, none of those people could afford it. But every development effort goes through evolution and change; some will fail; but those guaranteed to fail are those never started.

Then there's the boss who makes demands which may lead to dangerous devices. Most engineers are employees and their paycheck is to some degree (we're always free to quit) held hostage by those more concerned about the bottom line than more important issues.

It's important that we always hold true to certain base truths. For instance, I keep a copy of the US Constitution on my phone as it represents the ideal of whom we want to be as a nation. No matter how you feel about all of the crazy stuff in the news, there's so much smoke and FUD that it's easy to get swept up in the hysteria. Referring to our most important founding document grounds the discussion.

Similarly, in engineering we do have some documents that should ground our professional behavior. None are perfect, but they have some good insights. I like the IEEE's Code of Ethics (http://www.ieee.org/about/corporate/governance/p7-8.html). Another good one is the Statement of Ethical Principles from the Royal Academy of Engineering (http://www.raeng.org.uk/societygov/engineeringethics/principles.htm).

In engineering we're always trying to improve; to continue to learn new things, to use better processes, and, if we're wise, to audit and improve, if necessary, our ethical behavior. In management this would be called continuous improvement.

What do you think? How do you balance the external forces that want to drive you from where you ethically want to be?

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