‘Cause anything’s possible, yeah

There’s no code of ethics out here

Drake

There has been no shortage lately of stories about the tech industry’s questionable ethics. We all read the stories. A smart security camera company is working with law enforcement to create an unofficial surveillance network. Tech executives photoshop female executives into their snapshots of a field trip before sharing them on instagram. The algorithm of a new credit card determines credit limits on the basis of gender. And the list goes on and on.

Still, while the critique of immorality may apply to the upper echelons of the well-known big corporations, I believe it to be an unfair assessment of the industry as a whole. While ethics is not always at the forefront of every developer’s mind, it is a mistake to conclude that her work is thus immoral. Heck, I would not even call it amoral.

A lot of software development – especially Open Source Software (OSS) development – is driven by values. From the Google Engineer that aims to make the web more accessible, the Facebook Developer that open sources her internal tools, to the committed idealist developing a fair OS.Most software developers actually want to make the world a better place, even if – or especially when – their ethics don’t alway align with their company’s agenda. The problem, however, is that these values are not always clear and visible from the outside.

In this article, I explain how Public Badges build on the existing paradigms of Test Driven Development (TDD) and Behavior Driven Development (BDD) to help engineers render the implicit values that drive their work explicit. By making values, measurable, reproducable, and communicable, Public Badges enable customers, partners, and end users to choose software solutions that aligns with their own values.

Test Driven Development

I just took a DNA test
turns out I’m 100% that bitch
Even when I’m crying crazy

Lizzo

Ruby was the first programming language that I truly loved. Its emphasis on readability and conceptual clarity is unrivaled even today. A large part of Ruby’s appeal to me, though, came from its community’s dedication to Test Driven Development.

It is almost impossible to learn how to program in Ruby without also learning how to write unit tests. The idea behind testing is very simple. For every piece of code that does something, you also write another piece of code that checks that the former functions as intended.

Concretely, a simple unit test would look something like this:

assert_equal( 70, add( 50, 20 ) )

In this very example, the test asserts that a function called ‘add’ should be able to come to the conclusion that the sum of 50 and 20 is 70.

Test Driven Development, however, goes one step further than just unit writing tests. The real innovation of the methodology consists in the fact that the tests are not written after that the developer has written the code but before.

This so-called test first approach radically changes the practice of software development. In this new paradigm, the developer starts her work by making a promise of what the code should do after it is finished. In TDD, tests become contracts. They formalize the expectations that the developer may have of her future work. The practice of TDD as such could therefore already be considered ethical.

Behavior Driven Development

Be ready, be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behavior

Björk

Behavior Driven Development takes these fundamental ideas of Test Driven Development one step further. In BDD, the focus of the test is no longer the code but the user. It is therefore no longer even called a test but a specification. This is a very, subtle difference, that is often, falsely, dismissed as meaningless.

The difference is probably best explained after I first show an example:

Feature: Cash register can correctly add up two amounts.
In order to make money. As a store owner.
I want the cash register to function properly

Example: Adding up two store items
Given a customer buys a sweater and a pair of socks
And the sweater costs 50 euro
And the socks cost 20 euro
When I add up 50 euro and 20 euro
Then the cash register should say 70 euro

For those, who never encountered Gherkin – the so-called domain specific language (DSL) in which this specification is written – before: the above example is actually valid code and not just a story. It can be parsed and executed by a computer.

As is immediately apparent, BDD specification are much more verbose than their TDD counterpart. While both tests are functionally equivalent, the gherkin version needs 11 more lines of code. (And that’s not even including the implementation part that I omitted here.)

Many developers dismiss these extra lines as superfluous, but thereby miss the essential point of BDD. Tests are no longer exclusively intended for developers. They are meant to facilitate the dialogue between the engineer and the software‚ the intended user and/or customer. BDD specifications are a tool to manage their mutual expectations.

One could argue that, from a BDD perspective, the most important line in the specification above is thus the following:

As a store owner

Value Driven Development

I’m just valuin’ the value

Lil’ Wayne

BDD constantly reminds the developer of the fact that there is an actual user of her software, which – as anyone who has ever used a computer knows – is already a feat as such.

But while the user centricity of BDD has been often praised, there is another line in the example above that unfortunately has never gotten the attention that it deserves:

In order to make money

This is the line in the test where the actual value of the software is determined. This example is deliberately a bit contrived to make a point. While negotiating and formalizing their mutual expectations, users and developers should decide which values they value. And while making money is definitely an important one. It is far from the only one value that they could and should choose. 

Just imagine what else we could have stated as the project’s goal:

In order to increase accessibility.

In order to make people happier.

In order to protect people's privacy.

And just imagine how their respective specifications could have looked if we would have chosen these different values?

That’s exactly what we are doing with Public Badges. Encouraging developers to write software specifications with values in mind. The badge itself is in the end merely an insignia of merit. A token that shows to the outside world that its creators actually committed themselves to this practice of making their ethics measurable, reproducible, and communicable: Value Driven Development.


This article was written by Jan Hein Hoogstad, originally published on the Offcourse Studio_ Website and can be found here: https://offcourse-studio.com/blog/value-driven-development/. This is the second in a series of articles. The first can be found here: Fundamentals of Trust.

Public Badges is an initiative of PublicSpaces that is currently being developed by Waag and Offcourse Studio_.

Photo by Lisheng Chang on Unsplash