Volkswagen is currently blaming its engineers for implementing the workarounds that optimized the pollution controls to bypass government testing that was intended to keep the people safe from toxic diesel particulate emissions.
I cannot believe that executives did not know, approve, or review the process. In a tightly controlled, tested, stable and rigid organization that designs cars, there will have been multiple levels of management review and authorization to spend billions in factories and production facilities.
So when Volkswagen starts blaming a few engineers for the problem, I’m beginning to think a scapegoat has been found.
Being The Patsy
I have been the scapegoat many times. IT teams often blame everything wrong on the last person to leave the company. Admit it, we’ve all done it.
As someone who was part of big changes to a few places, I know a lot things that became my fault. Heck, I’ve been hired because I’m willing to take the blame if it goes wrong.
What bothers me here is that executives are pointing fingers at engineers to avoid taking the blame themselves. There are echoes of the financial crisis in 2008 when traders blamed anyone but themselves for overextending credit.
Are there morals in business? What constitutes ethics in a modern corporate entity when it is enslaved to short term profits and results?
These are questions I have faced in corporate settings. Technology creates change and affects people’s lives – homes, children, relationships. Back in the 80’s I deployed an accounting system that put forty people out of work. I’ve been part of outsourcing projects that saw unsuspecting long-term employees get swiftly marched out the door.
Apart from the personal, I’ve worked for gaming companies that are quite ruthless about exploiting people who want to believe they can escape poverty in a single lucky event. And let’s not forget the banking crisis caused by technology-enabled loans and mortgages. What about working in nuclear power generation? Or for a tobacco company after years of false claims and misleading people about the health of cigarettes?
Working for these companies created moral crises for me, but it wasn’t personal – I did not directly know the people being affected.
Was it right to put that issue to one side? Am I the right person to judge such morality when I’m an engineer? I believe that management and executives are required to consider morals, but often don’t because it’s not rewarded or recognized.
There are two steps to preventing a Volkswagen-style crisis in your work. One, don’t participate. Two, check your armor plating.
It can be difficult to see the big picture when you’re focused on a specific technical challenge. It might be possible to offer a solution and trust that management will judge its integrity and safety. But you must ensure that you are armor-plated. Protect yourself.
How do you install armor plating? Document your position/view in official document (not email). Be aware of company politics and what it might do with your work.
And don’t fool yourself that it’s not your problem. These Volkswagen engineers might end up taking the blame; think about the damage to their personal lives. You don’t want to be them.
This post originally appeared in Human Infrastructure Magazine, a Packet Pushers newsletter on life in IT. You can get a free subscription to Human Infrastructure by signing up here or using the form below.