Poor sports

If you’re not reading about Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan behaving badly, then you’re reading about sports scandals. As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I read about baseball great Barry Bonds in the news nearly every day. In part, it’s because of his race to beat Hank Aaron’s home-run record. But it’s also because of his still-unclear role in the BALCO case, which involves the possible use of performance-enhancing drugs. Nearly every story involving Bonds brings up the steroid questions as “context.”

Bonds’ doping allegations are old news. New news is Michael Vick, a U.S. football quarterback accused of backing vicious dogfights. New news is Tim Donaghy, a veteran National Basketball Association referee accused of both betting on games (which is forbidden) and influencing the outcome of games (which is really forbidden). The cycling world has been rocked by a stream of scandals within the Tour de France over the past few years. This year, no fewer than three prominent racers—Alexander Vinokourov, Cristian Moreni and Michael Rasmussen—either failed drug tests or failed to show up for tests, prompting their exit from the race.

Ouch. But what’s noteworthy about all these isn’t that prominent celebrities and athletes are accused of either violating the law or their sports’ rules. That happens all the time. What’s noteworthy is that people like us hear about it…because they’re celebrities. That puts a face and a name on possible wrongdoing. People relate to faces and names.

In our profession, software development, people also behave badly. Sometimes they behave badly on purpose, putting back doors into applications, writing worms, stealing data. Sometimes, they behave badly through ignorance or carelessness, by not running security tests, not encrypting backup tapes, not listening to user requirements.

In almost all cases, professional malfeasance in the software development world is hidden or anonymous. “The software had a bug,” or “the data was stolen” or “the system was breached.” We don’t know who did wrong. We don’t know why. There’s no shame of public disclosure.

Shame drives people to care about their work. You’re less likely to drink and drive, I believe, if you know your name will be in the local newspaper if you get caught. The “perp walk,” or the parade of arrested celebrities past TV cameras, can be humiliating.

We should wish that our sports stars didn’t cheat, and that our entertainment celebrities didn’t take such a cavalier approach to the law. I’m glad that when they do get caught, however, we hear about it. I’m glad it’s not merely swept under the rug.

I’m not suggesting that if someone forgets to check a buffer or initialize a return variable, we should splash their photo on national TV. But if we find developers cheating or stealing—not being a good sport, in other words—it would be good to know about it.

Of course, let it also be said that we’re all, to some extent, hypocrites: I’m going to see the San Francisco Giants play (vs. the Washington Nationals) tomorrow, and I hope to see Barry Bonds hit home run 756.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick