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Do you make your money honestly?

Just finished reading MSNBC on Epixtar Corp., one of those "telecommunications services" companies that makes its money by "cramming" (putting spurious charges on people's phone bills, making it hard to get refunds, etc.).

So I'm curious: Does anybody here work for a company that makes its money in clearly unethical ways?  Not through Dilbertesque incompetence, but by actually aiming to rip people off.  If so, how?  How do you fit into it, and how do you feel about it?

(Anonymity would, of course, be de rigueur in conjunction with an affirmative answer.)

Thursday, April 24, 2003

This is a finer line than it first appears.  I struggle with this myself.  My company makes a product (a 2 million LOC accounting system) that is, well, a buggy also-ran.

My honest, personal judgement is that most of our customers would be better served by competing products.

Is it unethical to work here?  Perhaps.  But, my work helps keep dozens of people employed; we provide excellent service and treat our employees well.

All of us strive to improve this product that we've inherited and do truly feel the pain of the customers.  But if capitalism was truly "transparent", no one would buy the product, we'd be out of business, and our customers would be better off.  On the flip side, we indirectly apply pricing and quality pressure to our competitors, which is good for our target market.

Ethical or unethical?  My guess is that this same dilemma applies to many, if not most people employed in this country.  i.e. is it ethical to work at McDonalds (unhealthy foods), Nike (supposed "oppression" of the 3rd world), EDS (bilking the govt for billions in IT waste)?

Bill Carlson
Thursday, April 24, 2003

Interesting question....

I think most people would agree that an operation like the one that installs Gator on your computer for tracking your every online move is a little devious, and in my mind on the wrong side of ethical. Does it become okay if they clearly state their intentions in their EULA, even if it's buried deep in the legalese?

Another example; I received a call from my ISP this morning. They wanted to offer me a two-month free trial of their new 'Ultra DSL' package. However, if I accept the trial, I have to contact them at the end of the two months to turn off the service, or it is added to my bill after the trial period. Ethical?

The lady on the phone tells me this straight up, without me asking. Does this change things? Are they trying to 'rip me off', knowing that a large percentage of people will forget about the extra charge, and don't check their VISA bills carefully?

Theoretical example: Mr. Spolsky here decides to send out a notice of a new major build for FogBugz, on an opt-in newsletter. However, his bank of staff psychologists inform him that a certain shade of blue will raise sales by 1-3%, so he makes the background of this email a beautiful dusty baby blue. Is this ethical? Is playing to the subconscience of potential customers ethical? Is it possible to not play to the subconscience of potential customers.

I certainly don't have an answer,  just questions.

All I can say is that the company that I work for makes every attempt to help customers make informed decisions, and works towards long-term success based on satisfied users. I sleep fine at night.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

FWIW, I'm working a second contract in addition to my day job at CAMEL. The second contract job is pure profit for work performed and value added - I am *very* proud of the services we offer and the product we deliver.

In other words, the antithesis of what you're asking, but I just had to brag. :-D


Thursday, April 24, 2003

Two versions ago I would have screamed No!  I am scum.  Although inadvertant, the product was less than.  Through a honest, concerted effort to improve, helped in no small part by this site and it's participants, I can now confidently say...  I'm gettin' there.

I slept through the night once last week so it must be improving, right?

Thursday, April 24, 2003

I'm in a very similar situation to Bill in terms of product.
I didn't use to think we were an "also ran" as Bill's product is described.  Multiple bad decisions and and bad inherited base make it hard for us to be anything else.  It's demoralizing as the company slips.  If the company lasts long enough to see the economy rise again, I expect the badly paid employees will seek greener pastures.  Not too bad a place to work until then though.  Good people for the most part.

With Bill
Thursday, April 24, 2003

I work for a government revenue department...which I believe qualifies me as amoral.

The Word
Thursday, April 24, 2003

I once worked for a company that sold a $60K package to Rockwell Corp, which was nothing more than a few Excel-like macros (script for a off-brand debugger).  That was my task for the few short months that I worked there: to write the macros.  I felt like a real tramp.

Mrs. Robinson
Thursday, April 24, 2003

By the way, in reply to your "is formatting the advertising to maximize response ethical?" I will answer an unqualified yes. To me this falls in the same regime as wearing a suit to work to appear more competent - there is nothing immoral about recognizing human nature and playing it to your advantage. BUT there is a fine line, I think, and that's where the ethics come in.

An example from today - we were discussing security on our system and realized we had no real requirements for a security system other than five vaguely-defined roles. The debate was between a metadata-driven system that can handle anything vs. "let's give them five simple roles and be done with it."

One guy suggested "they've approved the five roles in the requirements document; I say we put the five roles in the logical design, deliver it like that, and move forward."

I refused to go with that, since we all know it was relying on the idea that management simply wouldn't really read and understand the design document - it would be like hiding "and you have to give us all your money" on page 73 of a fine print contract. What I countered with was doing that, but specifying the security issue in the cover letter - "unless otherwise directed*, we are designing the application security with five simple roles as follows..."

In other words, call the shortcoming to their attention and give them a chance to deal with it.

Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but I see a distinct difference between playing on anticipated preferences and preying on known shortcomings.


*Smart commanders in the military do this all the time to the point it has a standard abbreviation: UNODIR

Thursday, April 24, 2003

I worked for a VC-funded company that tried /saving/ money by screwing its salespeople.  The product was far from shipping, and they paid the poor guys mostly on commission.  No product = no commission.

"Wait a sec, the salespeople didn't know anything about the product's schedule?"  Yup, even when there was a shipping product, communication with devs was so appalling that the devs didn't know about features promised for weeks until literally a couple days before deadline.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

All of them sued the company.  In GERMANY, where people rarely sue.  So the company hired a lawyer part-time, and overburdened him with work.

At the end, the CEO was so stupid he asked the sysadmin if he could steal the customer list (previously he treated the admin like dirt and reneged on an overtime bonus), and was turned down because that's illegal.  Poetic justice, since the idiot paid beaucoup bucks on one of those buggy enterprise java information systems that encrypted all the info, and the admin changed the passwords.

And I'm sure there's a lot worse out there.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

As for the rest of your question, I actually fit in fine.  I mean, I couldn't sleep at all, and frequently wished I had contact with the customers so I could hint them to stay away.  But I helped talk with employees after hours about their extreme unhappinesses.

The problem is that mainstream German culture has too strong a notion of permanence, so things don't fail fast.  People don't quit fast enough.

The best thing I did was get a very productive personal friend to work under me, after joking to everyone about this:

He taught the sysadmin Java for his resumé, and kept me company.  Oh yeah, the free-for-all on company schwag before bankruptcy was like Xmas.  (The CEO of course walked away with the webcams.)

Thursday, April 24, 2003

The sound clip on that MSNBC article is worth hearing.

Basically it's "do you agree to all this really small small print and is this your phone number?" So you answer "Yes." thinking you're saying yes to "that's my phone number" but you're really agreeing to the whole sentance.

Then she gives another long small-print speach and says "ok?" and the guy responds "okay...." and the recording cuts off before he can register a complaint that you can tell was coming.

I wonder if that recording would hold up in a court of law.
Friday, April 25, 2003

I've often wondered how many people buy the cheapo academic version of developer tools such as Visual Studio .Net to develop software professionally. Judging by the number of them you see for sale on eBay, I would guess there are quite a few dishonest developers out there. (Although, I doubt that even MS attempts to track down commercial products developed with academic software.)

Friday, April 25, 2003

Last time I looked, the academic versions of Visual Studio had some key components missing, which would make it impossible or impractical to develop a commercial product, so that's probably not an issue.

(I can't remember what they were off the top of my head - lack of support for out of process servers with unattended execution was one iirc).

Better than being unemployed...
Friday, April 25, 2003


I've been using the trick for over 20 years. I used to call them "reverse deadline memos" ("passive authorization" would be more accurate but no manager likes to be accused of passivity).

If I wanted to do something I would send a memo saying I will do this within a certain time frame (which was nearly always shorter than the time it took the manager to reply to email) unless instructed otherwise. Absolutely guarranteed to get 60% + of your plans through however objectionable the boss.

There are refinements. A friend of mine used to send obviously ridiculous actions to the boss on the grounds that his boss would feel he had to reject a certain percentage of his suggestions so he might as well ensure that nothing he wanted was in that percentage. If the thing wasn't kyboshed he would just forget about it, and be able to claim that he realized his mistake in time (and of course have one extra thing to hold over the boss). I knew somebody else who would make certain glaring arithmetical errors when doing the inventory, sure that they would be pounced on and that thus the boss would not delve more deeply and find out that the inventory was pure fiction.

Stephen Jones
Friday, April 25, 2003

quote: "and find out that the inventory was pure fiction. "

he he he, that's the way to go. Thanks for the ideas.

Most projects that I've worked with felt like utter crap in the beginning. After a few iterations, they got stable. That's the way in software, and I think it's the same at all other companies. Thinking that your customers would be better off with someone else's product is just because you don't have the inside info on that other product.

I think it was Joel who said that a good rule of thumb is that it takes about ten years for a complex software to mature? That's it. Stop feeling guilty.

As about working for a two months on a few Excell macros to sell for 60k, that's paradise. I could do that for a living!

Friday, April 25, 2003

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