Free Thinker

Is it time to set your own code of ethics?

In his excellent new book, Leading Geeks, Paul Glen talks about the unique qualities the effective “geek leader” faces in managing a team of technical professionals. One challenge: Geeks tend to form a subculture within the companies where they work, which adopts its own attitudes and values apart from the organizations themselves. At the same time, geeks tend to be ambivalent about joining groups—they’re more comfortable working alone. Yet they’re also inextricably drawn to project teams, which allow them to learn from one another and work on more complex problems.”

Does any of this ring true for you? To me, Glen’s admittedly generalized descriptions mean that the friction between possessing an independent nature and self-identifying heavily with others who do a similar job means you’ll probably never join a union. What you might do, however, is follow the lead of a co-worker you respect—if that co-worker has top technical skills and excellent work ethics. In other words, as a group, we don’t like to be led, but we may choose to follow others whom we admire.

Glen’s observations reminded me that, as technical professionals, we largely make our own rules about appropriate professional conduct. One example of that is a group of IT professionals who recently agreed on a code of ethics. SAGE is a Special Technical Group of the USENIX Association. USENIX was founded as a Unix organization; but according to Rob Kolstad, the executive director of SAGE, it has become an umbrella group for IT— that now encompasses other OSs, including NT and Linux, in its research, publications and conferences.

SAGE’s code of standards covers professionalism, personal integrity, privacy, laws and policies, communication, system integrity, education, responsibility to the computing community, and social and ethical responsibilities. The code isn’t long, hard to read or technical. It starts with this: “I will maintain professional conduct in the workplace, and will not allow personal feelings or beliefs to cause me to treat people unfairly or unprofessionally.” Easy, right? You don’t go messing with the login vitals for people you don’t like, even though you could.

Of course you wouldn’t do that, but do your clients know that about you with certainty? Does your employer? Do your co-workers, including others in IT? Employers, clients and users want to trust the people they work with and rely on. That especially includes IT people, because our work is often mysterious and incomprehensible to others.

Knowing that, maybe it’s time to adopt, publicize and promote your own code of ethics in the workplace. Check out the basic list from SAGE at, then print it out and post it or create your own. Either way, you’ll help reassure those around you that a profession known for free thinkers and mavericks isn’t without standards.

About the Author

Dian L. Schaffhauser is a freelance writer based in Northern California.


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