The buck stops… where?

A fundamental value of computer ethics, agile and Scrum is truth telling.

As developers we have an obligation to provide honest feedback around decisions that affect either the quality or value of software our employer asks us to create.

I am now the senior person dedicated to software in my company. If that means anything it is that my responsibility has expanded to protect the best interests of my employer on any project we undertake that has software development dependencies.

The profound challenge in this is that while the company has expanded my scope of Responsibility it has not necessarily expanded my scope of Authority. As a mid-size, growing company we give department heads great discretion. My company is also one of many with a structural distinction between online and IT related software development. Therefore my team has no direct role in some of the most visible outputs of our company.

As a result, I cannot have true accountability for some outcomes since I cannot change them. That does not absolve me of my ethical responsibility nor allow me to narrowly define success in my current role. That is why to take my job seriously is to take on a certain amount of anguish.

The obvious answer is that I never should have taken on the role unless I was given commensurate authority. Perhaps this is correct.

I accepted the promotion because I believe it raises the profile of my team and makes more visible the quality and value return they are producing. I also believe that while responsibility without authority is flawed, it is a common state of play for those of us who introduce agile practices into a company. Let’s be honest, introducing agile is an attempt to lead change. Since I am not an entrepreneur it is a given that I will have to earn trust at each step of the way in making that change.

So given these circumstances, what is my responsibility to my employer around truth telling? Who am I obligated to tell truth to? Let’s focus on questions of value and quality and leave aside safety or legal concerns because as dramatic as whistle blowing is, that is not my reality.

Basic risk management tells me that the person who’s interests are most damaged should a problem arise owns the risk. In a functioning Scrum organization this is the product owner — or as Yahoo calls them, the single wringable neck. This one person is held accountable to the performance of a product in the market place. It is to them that any concerns over the value or quality of a software product need to be raised.

As I’ve said, I have a Scrum team but I do not work in a Scrum organization. There are times when projects originating outside my team do not have a clear “single wringable neck”. This presents a huge challenge. Who will be most affected by a problem if no single person is assigned real accountability for the outcome of a software project?

I have decided after hard experience that in circumstances where there is no responsible and empowered product owner the person most affected by problems is the person most identified with our brand and our products, my CEO. Therefore my responsibility for truth telling is to her.

This is, to me, a freeing realization for in it lies great opportunity for my company. My CEO who has proven herself to be an exceptional product owner. If anyone on the business side understands agile principles and my ethical responsibility as a software developer it is her. If anyone is capable of creating positive change in my company it is her.

Therefore, in the spirit of my CEO’s own vision, I will expect the best of people while maintaining my integrity and independent judgment to serve the best interests of my company, our customers, my peers, and our society.