Rogue Software Engineers and Responsibility, Accountability, and Authority

Quote of the Day

Plans are merely a platform for change.

— Israeli Defense Forces

Figure 1: Old-Time VW Beetle.

Figure 1: Old-Time VW Beetle (Wikipedia). I loved working on this car.

I have always liked Volkswagen (VW) cars – I actually rebuilt a Beetle engine during a shop class in high-school (Figure 1). My respect for VW took a serious downturn this morning when read the following headline,"Top U.S. VW Exec Blames 'A Couple of Software Engineers' for Scandal".

Give me a break. There is no way that a couple of rogue software engineers did this on their own – major technology corporations have processes that provide checks and balances against this kind of behavior. Someone in management had to know about this. Don't they have code reviews?  Who did the test and evaluation of the emissions system? Were all emissions test done on a dynamometer that the software was designed to deceive? Who did the systems engineering that set the emissions system requirements – these folks usually set the test requirements as well?

I see VW management trying to claim that they should not be held accountable for something they did not know about. I would argue that it is management's  responsibility to create a culture where integrity is a key value, and VW failed in this regard. They also need to be held accountable for the processes that failed to catch this deception.

I have always tried to understand the relationship between the words

  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Authority

I believe that if I am going to be held accountable for a project,  then I must be informed of my responsibility and given the authority to work the problem. However, I have frequently seen people held accountable for problems that they lacked either the responsibility or authority to deal with. Many years ago, I had a manager who was particularly bad in this regard. He frequently would punish someone for a problem that they were not primarily responsible. We used the phrase "Bring Me the Head of Willie the Mailboy" to describe when he made an example of an innocent person.

In my youth, I worked for a defense contractor. While working for this contractor, I was surprised when I heard a software manager introduce himself as "the designated scapegoat". He turned out to be correct, and he was blamed for that program's problems. In reality, that program's problems had more to do with his staff being allotted inadequate time and resources for the defined software tasks, which was an upper management decision.

I hope in the end the correct people are held accountable, but I would not count on it.


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2 Responses to Rogue Software Engineers and Responsibility, Accountability, and Authority

  1. Tim Hughes says:

    Aparently emissions parts supplier Bosch knew about the fraud and there are class action lawsuits being filed naming them as well.
    There has been very little detail of what the fraudulent programmers did.
    How did they detect when dynamometer testing was going on.?
    Here is one of the more detailed descriptions I found:
    Seems they looked for patterns of accelerator use which are characteristic of the test and not of real world driving.
    Based on this article,it seems hard to imagine that once the epa questioned VW in 2014 and then VW made software changes, that the vw management did not learn about the fraud then, if they really did not know, as they have claimed.

    Interestingly most diesel trucks from almost all manufacturers in the US also had similar fraudulent defeat software, which was discovered in the late 90's : One might imagine after that,that the EPA would have checked for similar fraud in cars?

    Since the introduction of OBDII diagnostic link , the CA testing relies very heavily on the on board emission computer reporting, to pass or fail emissions tests,with the rationale the external testing has less information than the on board system. Given the fraud scandals this seems somewhat problematic.

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