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Essential

Nowadays we’re hearing a lot about essential workers and essential jobs. Non-essential workers are either furloughed and filing for unemployment or, like us in the tech sector, working from home with minimal inconvenience. Essential workers are expected to show up and put their lives on the line, pandemic notwithstanding. As the quarantine grinds on, even the luckiest among us are learning how to do without things we took for granted and feeling the stress of isolation and uncertainty and grief. People with school-aged kids are trying to deal with providing 24/7 childcare while balancing the demands of work.

As people do less and spend less, the economy begins to teeter, falter, and spiral downwards. Watching it play out, I’m wondering, what really IS essential? Food and grocery stores are obviously essential. As are health care providers and those who keep the water and the electrons flowing. I’ve been trimming my own hair and it’s not too bad really. We can play the games, watch the movies, and read the books we already own. We can make our own music. I don’t really need new clothes and shoes if I’m not going places anyway. My old leggings and sweaters will do just fine.

My personal needs have always been pretty simple. Mostly what I miss is time with my oldest daughter, whom I haven’t seen in 6 weeks, and the freedom to roam and explore outdoors. My regular routine included lots of dog walks, hikes, and short road trips. I love to explore. But as parks and trails and beaches close, my horizons have narrowed considerably.

But beyond the personal, current events have impacted everyone’s professional life in some way.

I’ve been thinking more about what really is and isn’t essential in my work. I’m not a farmer or a doctor or a mail carrier, so the value of what I do is less obvious. I design software. Meetings and methodology and status reports and backlogs and dashboards and burndowns and process flows and empathy maps are just the tools we use to achieve a goal.

Well-designed software.

Essential software.

Can the current crisis help us refocus on what really matters to our organizations, our clients, and our communities? When discussing scope and features of a software project, I used to ask, “How does that make us more money or save us money?” I thought that was a valid way of measuring value. I may have been a bit off base. Is it too idealistic to change the narrative? What if we started asking “How does this create a more sustainable, safer, equitable world?”

Software can and does serve the common good. Educational software that allows teachers to teach students anywhere in the world. Communication software that lets us do face time with friends and family and colleagues. Ecommerce software that brings producers and consumers together to meet human needs. Health care software that tracks patient history so that doctors and nurses can make quick, accurate diagnoses and treatment decisions. Government websites let people access up-to-date information, apply for benefits, pay taxes, or register to vote.

The Association for Computing Machinery provides ethical guidance for software practitioners summed thusly, “In all cases, the computing professional should defer to the public good as the paramount consideration.”

There’s a whole lot packed into that sentence.

How can we bring this ethical framework into our daily professional practice?

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