Vass Bednar: Our tech bros can (and should) do better than this
There’s still space for the state, and for high standards, when we are dealing with public-interest tech.
By: Vass Bednar
Canada’s technology community made headlines this month in two uniquely revealing ways. The first was for a voluntary “hackathon” intended to rebuild the-now-optional-but-still-controversial ArriveCAN mobile application; presumably to demonstrate how “easy” the build is, considering the growing public scrutiny of the application’s soaring price tag.
The second was Alberta-specific, but applies to tons of tech employees: a controversy arose about whether software engineers can use that job title, without being licensed. Technically, claiming to be an “engineer” without being licensed is against the law. Alberta’s engineering regulator has insisted that anyone in the tech sector claiming this designation in their job title should follow the rules and have a permit. This has caused an “uproar.”
For me, both stories are a reminder of the remarkable and ultimately self-defeating arrogance and up-their-own-butts superiority of Canada’s startup leadership. Perhaps our politicians’ constant cheerleading of the startup sector has caused founders to believe their own press releases. This self-regard is dangerous for the future of digital government, and may well prove dangerous for the sector itself.
First, the hackathon: two Canadian technology firms mocked ArriveCAN by “building” it in a weekend, in response to a Globe and Mail report that spending on the mobile application is estimated to be $54-million. Rather than come forward with ideas that could improve collaboration and procurement in the future, the exercise was framed as a troll — demonstrating a better-than-thou pomposity. Coupled with the concurrent insistence that software engineers are synonymous with professional engineers that hold the official P.Eng definition but should not have to pay fees to leverage that desirable designation, a republic of tech bros is coming off more like snarky know-it-alls than constructive innovators.
Engineers have professional governing bodies for good reasons, like public protection, ethics, and broad accountability. A software engineer, on the other hand, is a rare example of a white-collar job without a formal standards body — you can get hired by linking to your GitHub repository. (Of possible interest to readers is that journalism is another of those non-credentialed white-collar careers.) To be clear, many software engineers have attended university and have engineering degrees — they just don’t need these credentials to land a job in the field.
Given that the Alberta dispute seems to be one of nomenclature, tech historian Clive Thompson (author of Coders: the Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World) has suggested that the term “developer” can solve the concerns of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, and absolve such individuals from obligations to pay fees to obtain a permit. It’s almost as if software engineers were willing to “re-code” their job titles, the issue would be solved.
Back to the hackathons over the Thanksgiving weekend. It is not unheard of for technology companies to collaborate with the government in priority builds. Both Shopify and Blackberry contributed talent to the construction of the COVID Alert app. Amazon partnered with the government to acquire critical personal protective equipment early in the pandemic. The Ontario Digital Services’ partnership with MLSE Digital to build Verify Ontario is a great example of shared public/private objectives combining to deliver quickly. There have also been unfortunate instances where governments sort of gave up and created a vacuum for tech volunteers and civil society to fill, like helping people find and book a COVID-19 vaccine. In some instances, this created a traumatic Hunger Games-like sleuthing situation that the Vaccine Hunters volunteers helped thousands of people escape.
Here’s the thing, though: those volunteers wanted to help solve a current and pressing problem, not show off with a weird stunt after-the-fact.
Great civic tech that provides public services to citizens should never be constructed by volunteers. We don’t have (or want) capital-E engineers volunteering to build bridges and highways or a subway stop for the government, just to show how well that can do it and for how much “cheaper.” Would you like to fly in a plane built by a volunteer to prove a point? I’ll pass.
This is not to say that the government is undeserving of criticism of ArriveCAN’s price tag. That expenditure warrants scrutiny and explanation. It is also fair to say that the government has a long way to go when it comes to IT, and they are certainly not great at procurement.
But the tech sector has its own problems, and we can’t overlook those, either. Consider Elon Musk’s recent threat (later withdrawn) to retract Starlink infrastructure for Ukraine. Or how some recipients of bionic eye technology are going blind after their implants become obsolete. There’s still space for the state, and for high standards, when we are dealing with public-interest tech.
The government has different standards of accountability and risk than most app developers. Do we need new models for partnership? Better input into procurement? And gut checks on pricing? Absolutely. But this kind of petulant peacocking (trolling, really) does little more than attempt to humiliate and delegitimize government — the same government that cheers hard for tech innovators to succeed and agonizes over how to court creative builds and help them scale, and the same government that determines game-changing procurement decisions.
Let’s face it, the government can’t move fast and break things, even during emergencies. Maybe tech bros should stop asking it to. The only thing that the ArriveCAN copycats are accomplishing is alienating and misunderstanding the very institution that they seem to be courting.
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