The Need for an Hippocratic Oath for Software Engineers

Two months ago, I wrote about an incident where a fault in an airbag system was responsible for the death of a child. (Actually, as a court ruled later, it was not the airbag system that was responsible, but rather an engineer who kept quiet about a bug that he had discovered earlier.)

Now, it seems like we have another case of a software-based disaster: Volkswagen recently admitted that they used software in their cars that detects official test situations and then reconfigures the engine to reduce pollution — just to get the figures right. When not in this “cheat mode”, that is, under real driving conditions, Volkswagen’s NOx emission rates are up to 40 times higher.

I think this cunning piece of German engineering has the potential to smash Volkswagen. Not extinguish entirely, of course, but Volkswagen’s stock value might decrease so much that it can be taken over easily by the competition. In any case, it will cost this company, whose bosses probably thought it was too big to fail, big: billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, an immeasurable amount of reputation and credibility.

What makes this story so exceptionally shocking is that we are not talking about a bug (like in the failing airbag case) but a feature. This software was put in deliberately, so it is rather a sin of commission than a sin of omission.

While it would be interesting to know what made people act in such a criminal way, what really matters is this: the whole mess could have probably been avoided if someone along the chain of command would have stood up and said “No!”.

I will use this sad story as an opportunity to introduce the “Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice” to you, a joint effort by IEEE and ACM. As for the Volkswagen scandal, it looks as if at least the following principles have been grossly violated:

Software Engineers shall:

1.03. Approve software only if they have a well-founded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests, and does not diminish quality of life, diminish privacy or harm the environment. The ultimate effect of the work should be to the public good.

1.04. Disclose to appropriate persons or authorities any actual or potential danger to the user, the public, or the environment, that they reasonably believe to be associated with software or related documents.

1.06. Be fair and avoid deception in all statements, particularly public ones, concerning software or related documents, methods and tools.

2.06. Identify, document, collect evidence and report to the client or the employer promptly if, in their opinion, a project is likely to fail, to prove too expensive, to violate intellectual property law, or otherwise to be problematic.

3.03. Identify, define and address ethical, economic, cultural, legal and environmental issues related to work projects.

5.11. Not ask a software engineer to do anything inconsistent with this Code.

6.13. Report significant violations of this Code to appropriate authorities when it is clear that consultation with people involved in these significant violations is impossible, counter-productive or dangerous.

In a world in which an ever-increasing part is driven by software, “The Code” should be considered the “Hippocratic Oath” of software engineers, something we are obliged to swear before we can call ourselves software professionals, before we are unleashed to an unsuspecting world. I wonder how many more software catastrophes it will take until we finally get there.

Bug Hunting Adventures #8: Just Like a Rubber Ball…

Two incidents gave rise to this Bug Hunting episode: first, I’m currently beefing up my burglar alarm system with a Raspberry Pi and second, I’ve just come across the old song from the ’60s “Rubber Ball” by Bobby Vee while randomly surfing YouTube (“Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy”).

The alarm system extension I have in mind is this: I want to be able to configure temporary inhibition of motion detection via a simple push-button: if you press it once, you suppress motion detection by one hour, if you press it n times, you suppress it by n hours, respectively. If you press the button after you haven’t pressed it for five seconds, any suppression is undone. There are status LEDs that give visual feedback such that you know what you’ve configured.

Thanks to the fine RPi.GPIO library, accessing GPIO ports is usually a piece of Pi. However, there is a fundamental problem when reading digital signals from switches and buttons called “switch bounce”, a phenomenon that has driven many brave engineers nuts.

If you flip a switch, there never is a nice transition from zero to one (or one to zero, depending on how you flipped the switch). Instead, the signal bounces between zero and one, in a rather indeterminate fashion for many milliseconds. The bouncing characteristics depend on various factors and can even vary for the same type of switch.

The takeaway is this: with switches (and buttons, of course), expect the unexpected! You must use some sort of debouncing mechanism, implemented in either hardware or software. For some background information check out this excellent article by embedded systems luminary and die-hard veteran Jack Ganssle.

But back to my alarm system. I skimmed the RPi.GPIO documentation and was happy to read that since version 0.5.7, RPi.GPIO has support for debouncing of digital input signals, so there was no need to debounce the push-button myself. Exuberantly, I sat down and wrote this test code:

#!/usr/bin/env python

import RPi.GPIO as GPIO
import time

# My push-button is connected to GPIO port 17.

# Use official Raspi GPIO numbering scheme (port 17 is pin 11).

# Configure GPIO port for input, use a pull-down resistor.
GPIO.setup(GPIO_PORT, GPIO.IN, pull_up_down=GPIO.PUD_DOWN)

# Handler that handles rising edge events.
def button_pressed():
    print "Button pressed!"
# Register rising edge handler, ignore further rising edges for 200 ms.
GPIO.add_event_detect(GPIO_PORT, GPIO.RISING, 
    callback=button_pressed, bouncetime=200)

# Keep looping forever.
while True:

To avoid arbitrary, floating input voltages, I setup the port such that it is pulled down (to ground) by default. As a consequence, reading that port when the button is not pressed yields a clean zero.

I didn’t want to poll the button port, as this would burn valuable CPU cycles, so I registered an event handler with the RPi.GPIO library that would be called back once a rising edge had been detected. I added a ‘bouncetime’ parameter of 200 milliseconds, to avoid multiple calls to my ‘button_pressed’ handler, in full accordance with the RPi.GPIO documentation:

To debounce using software, add the ‘bouncetime=’ parameter to a function where you specify a callback function. Bouncetime should be specified in milliseconds. For example:

# add rising edge detection on a channel, ignoring further 
# edges for 200ms for switch bounce handling
GPIO.add_event_detect(channel, GPIO.RISING, callback=my_callback,

In other words, after a rising edge has been detected due to a button press, I won’t be bothered with spurious rising edges for 200 ms. (200 ms is plenty of time — no switch I’ve ever seen bounced for more than 100 ms. Yet, 200 ms is short enough to handle cases where the user presses the button in rapid succession.)

I tested my button for a minute and it worked like a charm; then, I varied my press/release scheme and suddenly some spurious “Button pressed!” messages appeared. After some head scratching, I discovered the problem — can you spot it, too? (Hint: it’s a logic error, not something related to misuse of Python or the RPi.GPIO library.)

Epilogue: Once the problem was understood, the bug was fixed easily; getting rid of this darn, “bouncy, bouncy” earworm was much harder, though.


Two German Maxims That Will Save Your Neck (and Others’ Necks as Well)

I quite remember the uneasy sensation that I had when a former coworker told me a story — a story about a senior engineer who went to jail because of a bug, a fatal one, as it turned out.

The bug lurked in an electronic control unit (ECU) which was, among other things, controlling the manual deactivation of the front passenger seat’s airbag. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t want to disable an airbag, a feature that saves lives every day around the world. However, if you intend to put a rearward-facing baby seat in the front, you have to do it, or you risk severe injury of your child in case the airbag deploys during an accident.

Now, this unfortunate engineer discovered that under extremely rare conditions there was a tiny window of opportunity for the airbag deactivation mechanism to fail silently; that is, it would appear to be deactivated when in fact it wasn’t. I don’t remember the necessary prerequisites, but what I do remember is that the combination of inputs and actions sounded so silly, so unusual, so improbable that he — like probably most of us would have — expected that the fault would never ever show up in practice. But what a terrible mistake this was, as this is exactly what happened and a child lost its life.

How unlikely or likely is the higly improbable? The chances of winning a 6-number lottery game are typically 1 against many tens of millions; yet, the likelihood that some player (not a particular player, of course) wins is quite high. Why? Because there are millions of players who take part in such lotteries. The same is true for ECUs which frequently find their way into millions of cars.

The developer was punished not for creating the bug but for not telling his managers about his discovery, for keeping it secret. But why didn’t he report the problem to his superiors? I can only guess. Maybe there was a lot of schedule pressure, perhaps he didn’t want to upset his boss. Or, the product was already released and a recall would have cost a lot of money, let alone reputation. If you ask me, it was a deadly cocktail of fear and pride.

When I did my military training at the German Armed Forces, one of the first rules I learned was “Melden macht frei”, which more or less translates to “reporting is liberating”. It is your duty to report an incident and it has a liberating effect on you, both emotionally and legally. After reporting, it is your superior’s problem. He has to decide what to do next. That’s not dodging responsibility — it’s passing on an issue that is outside your area of responsibility to the right person.

In the same spirit, as professionals we also have to report any issue that is harmful to customers or the company, regardless of how unlikely it appears to us. Even if management makes a (hopefully prudent) decision to ignore the problem (like it was the case in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, where engineers clearly raised their concerns that the O-rings on the rocket boosters would not seal at low temperatures), at least you have behaved professionally and are saved from prosecution and guilt feeling.

There is, however, a strange phenomenon: People sometimes forget that you informed them, especially when they have to testify in court. That’s why I want to share another important German wisdom with you: “Wer schreibt, der bleibt”, which can be translated as “you write, you stay”. It means that (only) if you write something down, you will be remembered. In other words: always keep a paper trail; email usually suffices.

Bug Hunting Adventures #7: Random Programming

If you want to draw m random samples out of a set of n elements, Knuth’s algorithm ‘S’ (ref. The Art of Computer Programming, Vol 2, 3.4.2) comes in handy. It starts out by attempting to select the first element with a probability of m/n; subsequent elements are selected with a probability that depends on whether a previous element was drawn or not.

Let’s do an example. To select 2 random samples out of a set of 5 (say, the digits ‘0’, ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, and ‘4’), we select ‘0’ with a probability of 2/5. If ‘0’ is not chosen, we attempt to select ‘1’ with a probability of 2/4 (since there are only 4 candidates left); otherwise (if ‘0’ has been selected) with a probability of 1/4, since one attempt to draw has already been used up. It’s easy to show the corresponding element selection probabilities in a binary tree:

                _____  2/5 _____              '0'
               /                \
          __ 2/4 __          __ 1/4 __        '1'
         /         \        /         \
       2/3         1/3    0/3         1/3     '2'
        :           :      :           :       :

In this tree, the nodes represent the likelihood that the element in the column on the right will be picked. Transitions from a node to the right mean that the element was picked, while transistions to the left denote that the corresponding element was not picked. In the ‘selected’ case, the numerator is decreased by one; the denominator is decreased in either case.

Here is an implementation of Knuth’s algorithm in C:

// genknuth -- print m random samples out of the set of numbers [0 .. n) (exclusive).
void genknuth(int m, int n) {
    int i;
    for (i = 0; i < n; ++i) {
        if ((bigrand() % (n - i)) < m) {
            printf("%d ", i);
            // Selected, so decrement probability numerator.

For the sake of demonstration, assume that bigrand() is a function that returns a random number that is "big enough", meaning a value that is greater or equal to 0 and has an upper bound of at least n - 1 (a larger upper bound does not harm). Spend some time to understand how the 'if' statement implements the selection with the correct probablity.

So far, so good. But how would this clever algorithm look in another language? Let's port it to Ruby!

Not being a Ruby programmer (but being an experienced Online Programmer), I had to ask Auntie Google many questions in order to cobble together this code:

# genknuth -- print m random samples out of the set of numbers [0 .. n) (exclusive).
def genknuth(m, n)
    for i in 0 ... n
        if (bigrand() % (n - i)) < m
            print i, " "
            # Selected, so decrement probability numerator.

This Ruby code looks remarkably similar to the C version. It doesn't contain any syntax errors, but nevertheless doesn't output what it is supposed to. Can you see why?

For those folks who don't want to waste their time on Ruby, here is the Python version, sporting the same behavior and thus the same blunder:

# genknuth -- print m random samples out of the set of numbers [0 .. n) (exclusive).
def genknuth(m, n):
    for i in range(0, n):
        if (bigrand() % (n - i)) < m:
            print i,
            # Selected, so decrement probability numerator.


The Game of Life


“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky”

— John Lennon “Imagine”

Once again, like every year, time has come to celebrate Towel Day, a great occasion to ponder Life, the Universe and Everything.

Speaking of Life — a surprising number of people, including software developers, don’t know about LIFE, also called Conway’s Game of Life; an even smaller number is aware of the corollaries, let alone accept them as a fact of life (pun intended!). So what is LIFE?

In LIFE, which isn’t really a game, but rather a simulation, there is an infinite field of cells; cells can be in either of two states: dead or alive. Conway defined four simple rules:

  1. A live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies (think: dies of loneliness).
  2. A live cell with two or three live neighbors continues to live.
  3. A live cell with more than three live neighbors dies (think: dies of overpopulation).
  4. A dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (think: birth of a cell).

You start with an initial (e.g. random) set of live and dead cells, let time increase in discrete steps and after every step you apply these four rules. That’s all. After every step the board contains a new set of live and dead cells.

It is quite fascinating to see how structures, patterns (or objects) emerge, move, disappear and reappear. Some of these objects have been given names that aptly describe their nature, like “pulsars”, “gliders”, “glider guns”, just to name a few.

What is even more fascinating is that these objects are governed by higher-order “laws” that are not obvious from the four simple rules. For instance, you can observe that “blocks” never move, “gliders” always move diagonally and “lightweight spaceships” always move from right to left. (Here is a great site for trying out various patterns yourself.)

Isn’t this very much like our own universe? In our universe, we have some fundamental laws, which give rise to higher-level structures and laws, up to highest-level laws of physics or principles of human behavior.

What Conway proved was that complex structures can emerge from simple rules; he proved that you don’t need a Creator to obtain a complex universe, just simple rules, time and favorable circumstances.

Religious people often have a hard time accepting that. One the one hand, they argue, Conway didn’t prove the absence of a Creator, and second, Conway himself acted as a Creator himself since he — after all — created the rules of the game. Isn’t there, in our world, at least room for such a “Creator of Rules”?

Nobody knows, but I personally don’t think so. What Conway did was not create the rules — he rather zoomed in on a particular universe with a particular rule set, chosen from an infinite set of rules: He just shed light on one particular universe that is favorable of life in an infinite multiverse.

Let me close this post with the words of Stephen Hawking. Like all human beings, he doesn’t know everything, but he is probably one of the persons who has the best grasp of our universe:

“We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”

Oh No! The ‘in’ Operator Strikes Again!


“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
— Scott Adams

When I discovered the eerie truth about JavaScript’s ‘in’ operator, I thought that it couldn’t get any weirder. But boy-oh-boy, was I wrong!

Let’s first recap what’s so bad about JavaScript’s implementation of ‘in’. If you have a list (aka. array) in JavaScript and use the ‘in’ operator to test for membership, you are asking for trouble:

> array = [4, 2, 1]
> 0 in array
> 4 in array

Contrary to what you might expect, the ‘in’ operator doesn’t test whether the left-hand side value is a member of the array, but rather whether it is a valid index into the array. This makes absolutely no sense for arrays, but it does for dictionaries, since it tests whether a given key is present or not:

> dict = {4 : 'four', 2 : 'two', 1 : 'one'}
> 0 in dict
> 4 in dict

The moral of the story? Don’t use the ‘in’ operator in JavaScript on arrays to test for membership; with dictionaries everything is fine.

The other day, I found another shocking behavior of the ‘in’ operator, but this time in Groovy; not when used on arrays — when used on dictionaries! Consider this routine. It has two parameters, a list of words (the input text) and a dictionary which contains an entry for every word whose number of occurrences in the input text is to be counted:

def countWords(wordsList, wordsToCount) {
    // For every word in list.
    wordsList.each { word ->
        // If word is a word that is to be counted.
        if (word in wordsToCount) {
            // Increase count.

The initial word counts in ‘wordsToCount’ are set to 0; the word counts are increased for every corresponding word found in ‘wordsList’. For instance:

> def myText = ['spam', 'blah', 'eggs', 'foo', 'eggs', 'buzz']
> def myWordsToCount = ['spam' : 0, 'eggs' : 0, 'ham' : 0]
> countWords(myText, myWordsToCount)
> print myWordsToCount

should print:

[spam:1, eggs:2, ham:0]

At least, this is what most people would expect and what one would get in Python or JavaScript. Alas, what you will get in Groovy is this:

[spam:0, eggs:0, ham:0]

When used on dictionaries, Groovy’s ‘in’ operator not only checks whether the given key on its left-hand side exists in the dictionary, it also overeagerly checks if the corresponding value is ‘true’ according to the Groovy Truth Rules; that is, 0, null, empty strings and empty lists will make the ‘in’ operator return false.

The ‘in’ operator should only test for membership; that is, it should test if the left-hand side is in the collection on the right-hand side. On no account should it interpret an element’s value.

Not following a well-established convention is bad enought, but being inconsistent within the same language is a lot worse: when used with lists/arrays, the ‘in’ operator just checks for membership and doesn’t care a bag of beans about the value of a member:

> def mylist = [ 0, 1, null, "", [] ]
> 0 in mylist
> null in mylist
> "" in mylist
> [] in mylist

It won’t get any weirder — it simply can’t!

Bug Hunting Adventures #6: Logarithmic Errors

Sometimes, it is necessary to find out how an application uses dynamically memory. Especially on constrained (think embedded) systems you should know, for instance, what block sizes are typically requested, how much memory is allocated at any one time, and how much memory has been requested at most so far (allocation high-water mark). Data like this allows you to fine-tune your memory allocator and/or roll out your own highly-efficient, special-purpose allocator for popular block sizes.

I recently implemented such a statistics-enhanced version of operator new/delete and one of its tasks was to find out how frequently blocks of certain sizes were requested. Instead of keeping track of exact request sizes (which would have been prohibitively expensive on the target system) I came up with a simpler, but sufficient scheme where I counted allocations to block sizes, rounded to the next base-2 boundary:

void* operator new(std::size_t n) {

log2ceil is the ‘ceiled’ (rounded-up) binary logarithm of a given value. As an example, log2ceil(100) and log2ceil(128) both yield the same value of 7. Hence, the value g_allocations[7] would tell me how many allocations of block sizes in the range of 65 – 128 bytes there have been.

Below is the code of a log2ceil function; it works by counting the number of leading (left-most) zero bits in a word and subtracting this value from 31. In order to get the desired rounding behavior, a well-known trick is applied: first, decrement the argument by one and then increment the result by one.

This implementation is straightforward and all the tests pass. Still, it has a subtle portability issue. Can you see it?


The Reason We Have a Job

“There’s truths you have to grow into.”
― H.G. Wells, Love and Mr. Lewisham

Let me ask you a simple question. Why do you have a job?

Maybe you are convinced that you have a job because you have a lot of obligations, like hungry mouth to feed and bills to pay. Or because someone told you that every decent citizen simply must have a job these days.

But no, that’s not the answer I am looking for. These are all valid reasons why you want or need or should have a job.

Or maybe you believe the reason is that you are such an irresistibly smart person that every company just wants to posses.

No, again, such factors only make you attractive to your employer, they give you a competitive edge over other people.

So what is the real reason you have a job? Here is my answer: unless you work for a non-profit organization (or the government) the only reason why you have a job is that someone — the business owner — believes that, overall, you generate much more money than you cost.

The verb believes is essential here. It could be that you, objectively, turn out not to be such a great investment for your company, maybe even a massive waste of money, but that doesn’t matter much: you can still keep your job as long as your boss’ belief in your money-generating abilities remains strong.

However, once this belief (or hope) is gone, your days are numbered. You may stay on the payroll for quite some time, but you will be walking around neither dead nor alive, just like a zombie. The question is not if you will lose your job — the question is when.

But how cruel are these greedy company owners? What about social responsibility? Is it always just about the money?

This attitude arises from a common misconception, and yes, it is always just about the money. It is not the responsibility of a business owner to make employees rich (not even happy) — it is just the other way around. Sure, there are hip companies which treat their employees extremely well, pay high salaries and grant extraordinary benefits; but let’s not forget: it is only because there is (still) an enormous belief in a high return on investment. If everything turns out well in this gamble there is a win-win situation: happy business owner, happy employees — all the ingredients for a long-lasting virtuous circle.

In the not-so-fortunate case — and every company will face stormy weather, even the hippest — a business owner has to eliminate cost to ensure that his business stays profitable; not performing these life-saving amputations would put his and his employees’ future at risk. Unprofitable companies cannot exist for an extended period of time in a free market; they will sooner or later be eaten by the competition. And that’s not a statement — that’s a fact.

So wise developers should avoid becoming dependent on an employer’s dreams and beliefs. Instead, developers should constantly and aggressively invest in their knowledge portfolio and keep their resume up-to-date. They should neither mentally nor financially become too attached to a company or technology. Instead, they should always be ready to move on.

Give an outstanding performance for your money, but treat every day as if it would be your last. Get rid of those personal items on your desk. Accept that employments are transient. This not only gives you independence and self-confidence, it also makes you indispensable for your current employer — and your next.

Bug Hunting Adventures #5: False Diagnosis

Today’s cars host dozens of ECUs (electronic control units) that exchange tens of thousands of messages and signals on various buses (eg. CAN, MOST, Flexray, Ethernet). On top of that, ECUs provide hundredths of diagnostic services, that allow factories, maintenance personnel and even devices on the car to obtain (and change) various parameters, including vehicle speed, diagnostic trouble codes, and sensor/actuator data. By using diagnostic services, you can literally remote control your car, provided you get passed the security mechanisms, of course.

Diagnostic commands are exchanged based on the UDS protocol, as specified by ISO 14229-1:2013, via request/response pairs. Requests and responses are coded like this:

Request: SA, DA, SID1, ..., SIDn
Response (OK): SA, DA, SID1|0x40, SID2, ..., SIDn, RESP-PAYLOAD
Response (error): SA, DA, 0x7F, SID1, ERROR-CODE

Every ECU in a car has a unique 1-byte diagnostic address that uniquely identifies it (signified as source address SA and destination address DA, depending on whether a device acts as a sender or receiver) and each diagnostic service of an ECU is addressed by a 1 to n byte long service ID (SID). (Note that in reality, the n-byte “SID” consists of the real SID and a sub-level function ID, but this detail is of no importance for our considerations.)

If, for example, a device with SA = 0x20 wants to read all diagnostic trouble codes from an ECU with DA = 0x60, it would issue this request:

0x20 0x60 0x19 0x0A

where 0x19 0x0A is the two-byte service ID for the “READ DIAGNOSTIC TROUBLE CODES” service.

The positive response of the targeted ECU might look like this:

0x60 0x20 0x59 0x0A 0xFF 0x02 0x40 0x00 0x50 0x02 ...

Notice that the values of SA and DA are swapped; the replying ECU is now the sender and the requesting ECU the receiver. 0x59 is the first byte of the service ID (SID1) or’ed with the “response OK” flag 0x40. The response payload (the requested information, that is, the actual trouble codes) starts with 0xFF 0x02… .

If an ECU cannot fulfill a request, it sends a negative response indicator, followed by an error code that gives details on what went wrong:

0x60 0x20 0x7F 0x019 0x11

Here, 0x7F denotes ‘error’, 0x19 is the first SID byte of the original request (this time without the “response OK” flag) and 0x11 is the error code for “SERVICE NOT SUPPORTED”.

There are two error code values that usually require special treatment: If an ECU responds with error code 0x21 it means that it is currently busy and unable to process the request; if it responds with 0x78 it denotes that it is able to process the request but needs more time to complete it.

This description of the UDS protocol is of course an oversimplification, but it is enough for our bug-hunting purposes. Attached is an extract of an application that incorrectly processes the response to a diagnostic service request. Can you diagnose the problem?


Hero or Zero?

Andrea: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”
Galileo: “No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”

— Bert Brecht, “The Life of Galileo”

If you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, chances are that you get answers from this list: police officer, firefighter, astronaut, rock star. Children nearly always choose professions that are accompanied with acclamation, jobs where they can shine, where they can be big.

Even as adults, most of us still want to be heroes (or heroines), at least to some extent. This desire is deeply rooted in all human cultures and societies: Those who act, especially at the peril of their own lives, get praise and reward.

Strangely enough, the yearning for recognition is sometimes so strong, that people who should actually help in hazardous situations deliberately create them, just to get a chance to prove their bravery. You have probably heard about cases where firefighters set buildings on fire, just to be the first on the scene to extinguish it. This phenomenon is called “hero syndrome” and is an extreme form of degenerated professionalism, but it nevertheless does happen.

There is a lot of heroism going on in software development as well. Many software projects, for lack of software engineering knowledge and discipline, rely on heroics; the successful outcome totally depends on individuals who work crazy hours in an endless code-and-fix cycle. Especially the game industry has gained a sad reputation for such malpractice.

But sometimes it is not the companies which foist heroics upon their developers — sometimes, and much in line with the hero syndrome, developers deliberately create “hero situations” themselves.

One case in point is when developers accept impossible assignments in hope to get praise by their bosses for making the impossible happen, cases, where a clear, professional “No” would haven been the right answer. In his book “The Clean Coder” Uncle Bob cites a programmer whose words say it all: “I hit SEND, lay back in my chair and with a smug grin began to fantasize how the company would run me up onto their shoulders and lead a procession down 42nd Street while I was crowned ‘Greatest Developer Ev-ar'”.

By accepting ridiculous schedules and working ridiculous hours, such “heroes” not only put their pesonal well-being at risk, they also put their companies future at risk, at least for two reasons: first, if management is told that something which is highly improbable is doable, they might not look for alternatives, they might not set up a life-saving plan B; second, by leaving rushed, brittle, unmaintainable quick-hack code behind that nobody understands or dares to change.

But I’ve also met developers who gold-plate their code, write overly complicated code, or fervently and constantly use the most obscure language features — C++ template meta-programming immediately comes to mind — just to show everyone how clever they are. Again, the only thing such “heroes” usually achieve is that coworkers don’t dare touching their abominations — there is no praise at all, just head-shaking. This behavior is quite the opposite of what modern software development practices demand: software minimalism; that is, the simplest code that works, code that is easy to read, refactor, and extend by everyone — the basis for one of the most important software values: evolvability.

To me, people who behave in such a manner are no heroes at all, in fact they are quite the opposite of a hero. What they do is not a selfless act in order to help others but rather an act of selfishness that almost always hurts others. A wise manager would advise these folks to consult a specialist to get over their inferiority complex; if that doesn’t help, to seek their luck elsewhere, in the game industry, for instance.

By contrast, true heroes are invisible, they shun the limelight. They do things because they know that the overall benefit of their action is by far larger and more important than their own personal benefit. They are heroes because they do things that are right and not things that just shine bright.

There are firefighters out there who save lives every day, and some of them can rightly be called heroes. But the even bigger heroes are the people who probably nobody knows, people who work out fire protection standards — they must have saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last century. Benjamin Franklin’s saying “An ounce prevention is worth a pound of cure” is what they live by. Such heroes, modest people who strive to prevent, are the true role models of every software professional.