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The Avengers Initiative for Software Engineers

Hi, my name is Chris Sellek, and I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.

Are you a software engineer? A test engineer? Do you write software for a living or work alongside those who do? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, I’d like for you to join me in doing something bigger than you and me. Because in a world run by computers, those who can tell computers what to do are the superheroes. Or the supervillains. So what are we doing with our superpowers? This is a question I think we should be asking ourselves every single day. I fear that we too often fall into that real-life supervillain category without even realizing it simply because we aren’t paying attention to this question.

As a quick example, how many times have you written some code or tested some feature that you felt was ethically wrong? Did you fight what you knew was wrong? Unfortunately, in a previous role, I did not. The steady torrent of tech scandals touted by the media paints a similar picture for the industry at large. Phrases like “Cambridge Analytica,” “Volkswagen emissions scandal,” and “Russian social engineering on Facebook” all bring to mind scandals that could have been prevented if software creators like you and me had taken a stand against immoral practices.

As I mentioned, I have been a real-life supervillain. Instead of standing up for users my company at the time was taking advantage of, I did the easy thing. I made an excuse. I told myself that I wasn’t the decision-maker. I was a tester at the time, so I told myself it was my job to make sure the app did what the decision-maker decided it should do. What have you done in similar situations?

These ethical questions don’t just apply to the software we’re creating on a daily basis. It also applies to how we’re developing that software. Take a moment to think of your coworkers. Does every single one of them look and talk and behave exactly like you? If the answer is yes, that might be a problem. Research shows that diversity on executive teams is “strongly correlated with profitability and value creation.” Other research shows that non-homogenous teams tend to be smarter than their homogenous counterparts. Besides all of that, pushing for your team to be comprised of people from all walks of life, sexual orientations, gender identities, races, etc is the right thing to do. Even if this research didn’t exist, even if the research showed that diversity hurt profitability, we should still push for diversity in the workplace because people are people. A person’s value doesn’t derive from their identity, their culture, their background, or any of those things. A person’s value derives from the fact that they are a human being. Each human being comes with a unique background, their own personality, their own sense of humor, and valuable opinions that you or I might never even consider because they are different from us.

Finally, how are we raising up the next generation of Avengers?

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

Freshly graduated computer science major: “Time to find a job! Woohoo! Opportunity, here I come!”

Types ‘jr software engineer jobs Raleigh NC’ into Google.

Every single posting: “Searching for junior web developer. Something something ninja rockstar. Must have 831 years of TypeScript experience, 14 Bachelor’s degrees, a minimum of 3 PhDs, and at least 7,000,000 committed lines of code in GitHub.”

Computer science grad: …lights diploma on fire and finds a job in another industry.

Now, yes, this is an exaggeration. But, I have seen job postings asking for 8+ years of Swift experience in 2019 and Swift came out in 2014. On the junior front, at least 90% of all of the junior software engineering positions I have seen list a minimum of 3 years of experience to apply. This might be hard for this industry to believe, but I’ve done the math and I think it checks out. If we never hire anyone with less than 3 years of experience, we’ll never get anyone with more than 3 years of experience.

All these considerations and more are what we, as today’s superheroes, should be pushing for. And yes, all of these things are difficult. Some of them are incredibly difficult. But a very wise, famous uncle once said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and he was so absolutely right that the Internet has been quoting that wisdom for 17 years and counting. We are pushing humanity forward into the future with the software that we write and test on a daily basis. Our decisions will be what shapes that future. Let’s make it one we’ll be proud of.

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