Occidental Engineering


This Ethics Case Study and Commentary is written by Michael McFarland, S.J. during his time at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in June of 2012. It includes a case plus a full Tutorial on Ethical Decision Making as well as information on the Foundations of Ethical Judgement, Ethical Conflict, Ethical Reasoning, Derived Sources of Ethical Wisdom, and Responsibility.


Occidental Engineering Case Study: Part 1

Wayne Davidson is a software engineer in the aerospace division of Occidental Engineering, a large engineering firm. For the past two years he has been working as a test engineer for Operation Safe Skies, a project to build a prototype of the next generation air traffic control system. This project, which is funded by a contract from the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), is a very important one for Occidental. With all the cutbacks in defense spending, the aerospace division has been losing business. The Safe Skies project has provided much needed business, and could lead to a much larger contract if successful. Mindful of its strategic importance, the company had bid very aggressively for the original contract. In fact they had "low-balled" it, bidding less than it would take to do the work properly. They felt that was the only way they could beat out their competitors, who were just as hungry for the work. Because of their somewhat shaky financial position, the company was not willing to take a loss on the project, so the project has been underfunded and understaffed. Nevertheless those working on the project have made a heroic effort, working eighteen hour days seven days a week to meet the deadline, because they know how much it means to the company, not to mention their own jobs. They are now very close to success.

A version of the prototype has been completed and turned over to Wayne for testing. He has run extensive simulations on it and found that it works as it should except for one little problem. When there are too many aircraft in the system, it will sometimes lose track of one or more of them. The "forgotten" aircraft will simply disappear from the screen, there will be no trace of it anywhere, and it will be ignored by all of the collision avoidance and other safety tests. Wayne has been working with the software designers to identify the cause of the problem, and they have traced it to a subtle error in memory allocation and reuse. They are confident that they can fix it, but it will take a month or more to do the redesign, coding and testing.

Wayne meets with his boss, Deborah Shepherd, the project manager, to discuss the implications. She tells him that what he is asking for is impossible. The contract requires that the company deliver a fully certified, working version of the software in three days for system integration and test. The government has developed a new, get-tough policy on missed deadlines and cost overruns, and Occidental is afraid that if they miss this deadline, the government will make an example of them. They would be subject to fines and the loss of the remainder of the prototype contract; and they might not be allowed to bid on the contract for the full system. This would have a devastating effect on the aerospace division, resulting in thousands of lost jobs.

They consider whether they can do a quick patch to the software before turning it over, but Wayne adamantly refuses to release any code that has not been tested thoroughly. There is always a chance that the patch would interact with some other part of the program to create a new bug.

"Then we'll have to deliver the software as is," Deborah says. "I can't jeopardize this project or the jobs of my people by missing that deadline."

"We can't do that!" exclaims Wayne. "That's like delivering a car with defective brakes."

"Don't worry," Deborah reassures him. "We have contacts in the FAA, so we know their testing plans. They will do a lot of simulations to make sure the software works with the hardware and has all the functionality in the specs. Then they will do live tests, but only at a small airport, with a backup system active at all times. There is no way they will overload the system in any of this. After that they will have some change requests. Even if they don't, we can give them an updated version of the program. We can slip the bug fix in there. They will never see the problem. Even if they do, we can claim it was a random occurrence that would not necessarily show up in our tests. The important thing is no one is in any danger."

"Maybe they won't find the bug, but I know it's there. I would be lying if I said the system passed all the necessary tests. I can't do that. Anyway, it would be illegal and unprofessional."

"You can certify that it is safe, because it is, the way they are going to use it."

And so he does. In the end Wayne signs off on the software. It is delivered to the FAA and makes it through all the preliminary tests, including live tests at a small airport in the Midwest. As a result of these tests, the FAA requests some changes in the user interface, and when Occidental delivers the new software it includes a robust solution to the problem of the disappearing aircraft. No one outside of Deborah's group ever learns of the problem. In fact Occidental's success with the prototype leads to major contracts for air traffic control software, giving much-needed business to the aerospace division. This saves hundreds of jobs, and allows the company to add hundreds more.

Wayne Davidson, however, takes early retirement once the prototype project is finished, in order to write a book on software testing. He feels that the book should have a chapter on ethics, but he can never bring himself to write it.

What do you think about Wayne's decision? Was it ethical?

Next: Tutorial on Ethical Decision Making


Author: Michael McFarland, S.J., a computer scientist, is the former president of College of the Holy Cross and was a visiting scholar at the Markkula Ethics Center. June 2012.

Originally published by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Michael McFarland. . Occidental Engineering. Online Ethics Center. DOI:. https://onlineethics.org/cases/occidental-engineering.

I would like to offer the following response to Mr. Truitt.

I appreciate Mr. Truitt's insights about how good engineering practice could have prevented some of the difficult ethical choices that arose in the case. I would agree that both the manager and the engineer failed to live up to their professional obligations. This is a very helpful contribution to the understanding of the case and the issues it raises.

It was never my intent to let either of the principal agents "off the hook" in my analysis of the Occidental Engineering case. I am sorry if I gave that impression. I think the analysis gave a clear account of how they violated important ethical norms.

In the last part of the analysis that Mr. Tuitt objected to, I was asking the reader to go beyond the more familiar account of personal responsibility, which I agree is of the greatest importance, and look at more subtle issues of institutional responsibility.  It is not an either/or situation. The fact that a third party contributed to a moral lapse does not excuse the person who committed that lapse. To use a rather extreme analogy, if a drunk driver kills a child, to say that the party host who allowed the obviously intoxicated person to drive home bears some responsibility does not in any way excuse what the driver did or shield the driver from responsibility for the consequences. It rather recognizes an additional truth that the host also bears some responsibility for the harm done.

This can apply to institutional structures as well. The structural context within which people operate strongly influences their moral behavior. That is the reality. Good laws, for example, make for a good society, both because they discourage harmful behavior and because they create less of a penalty for those trying to do what is right. It is the same way with the rules, norms, expectations and rewards built into corporate and professional structures.

It is important to recognize this especially in cases where we have some responsibility for shaping those structures, as engineers and managers often do. The issue is not one of blame, but of responsibility. We certainly have responsibility for following ethical norms in our individual behavior. Mr. Truitt is quite correct about that. But in addition we also have a shared responsibility for building an environment that facilitates ethical behavior on everyone's part. Ultimately that can have an even greater impact in making a better society for all of us.

It seems Mr. Truitt also objects to the non-judgmental approach I have taken in general. That was a pedagogical judgment I made. In the case and its analysis, my purpose was not to judge myself who was right and who was wrong, but to give the readers some principles and methods, some tools we might say, for making those judgments themselves.  I also wanted to illustrate the complexity and subtlety of some of the issues involved. None of this is to say that we should not make moral judgments. We must. The purpose is to help us make them in a more thoughtful and nuanced manner, to understand why and how we make them, and to be able to communicate them more persuasively. All of that is very important in the complex social and institutional environments in which most engineers must function.

This text is a reply to Duane J. Truitt - A Practitioner's Response to "Occidental Engineering"

The Occidental Engineering case study, authored by Michael S. McFarland, S.J. and published on the Online Ethics Center, involved a discovery of a software coding bug affecting the life-safety performance of a new air traffic control and monitoring system to be delivered by Occidental Engineering to its client, the Federal Aviation Administration. The bug was fixable, but not within the contracted schedule. The chief designer who discovered the bug brought it to the attention of his project manager and requested additional resources (time and labor) to fix the bug prior to delivery to the client for their subsequent review and testing. The project manager argued that any such delay would result in irreparable harm to the company and its employees due to expected draconian punishment from the client, and that the bug would get fixed eventually anyway in a subsequent revision of the software following client review. The project manager also argued that the company could not disclose the error to the client, even though contractually the company was required to certify there were no known bugs. The software designer allowed himself to be talked out of reporting the bug to the client by the project manager, and then he subsequently retired. The bug was eventually fixed before the new system went live.

The author of the case study undertook an extensive review of fundamental ethics theory, and made occasional references back to the specifics of the Occidental Engineering case study. At the end, the author attempted what I believe is an unjustified excusal of the two principal parties (the software designer and the project manager) of their ethical malfeasance by blaming the affair on the shortcomings of the institutions involved, mostly Occidental Engineering (for underbidding the job and forcing the work to be done without sufficient resources of man-hours and schedule, and thereby putting the project manager and project staff in an untenable position), and perhaps to some degree assessed some blame to the client organization, the FAA (for using such draconian punishments for failing to meet a production schedule). Mr. McFarland lets the two principals off the hook essentially by concluding that the institutions otherwise put too heavy a burden on them personally in requiring them to cover up for the company’s malfeasance in bidding the work.

I disagree with this conclusion and approach by the author, for the following reasons:

1) The company and the project team – particularly the project manager - failed to properly plan the work and provide sufficient resources to complete the work to the required work and product standards. That is a fundamental responsibility of both the company and the PM. Proper planning, including risk management planning and dealing with defects in designing new code, is integral to the business of designing new software. There should never be “last minute” surprises in a well-managed engineering design project.

2) Dishonesty, as practiced deliberately by the PM in this case study, violates the ethical standards of the project management profession, as documented in the Project Management Institute (PMI), which certifies project management professionals. The PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, Chapter 5 Honesty, as follows:


5.1 Description of Honesty

Honesty is our duty to understand the truth and act in a truthful manner both in our communications and in our conduct.

5.2 Honesty: Aspirational Standards

As practitioners in the global project management community:

5.2.1 We earnestly seek to understand the truth.

5.2.2 We are truthful in our communications and in our conduct.

5.2.3 We provide accurate information in a timely manner.

5.2.4 We make commitments and promises, implied or explicit, in good faith.

5.2.5 We strive to create an environment in which others feel safe to tell the truth.

5.3 Honesty: Mandatory Standards

As practitioners in the global project management community, we require the following of ourselves and our fellow practitioners:

5.3.1 We do not engage in or condone behavior that is designed to deceive others, including but not limited to, making misleading or false statements, stating half-truths, providing information out of context or withholding information that, if known, would render our statements as misleading or incomplete.

5.3.2 We do not engage in dishonest behavior with the intention of personal gain or at the expense of another.

Most State engineering laws and practice rules also prohibit licensed Professional Engineers from communicating untruthfully to the public, and to their employers, and to their clients.

3) It is true that the project manager owed a fiduciary duty to her employer, Occidental Engineering, and the employees who depended upon this contract for their jobs. However, inasmuch as the hidden bug involved a function that is life-safety critical – failure of which could kill innocent crew and passengers (potentially many hundreds who might die in a mid-air collision involving multiple airliners) of aircraft being monitored and controlled by the system – the interests of the client and of the users of the air traffic control system greatly outweigh any such fiduciary duty owed to the company by the PM. The fact that the software bug did not actually kill anyone is immaterial – it very easily could have. Replicated multiple times it is actually fairly certain that eventually such a “killer bug” would make it through the system undetected by the client and actually kill innocents, as in the Morton Thiokol Challenger accident that the case study author made reference to in his concluding sections.

4) The author could have productively spent less time and words on describing the multiple theories of ethical behavior. Instead, a more useful analysis would focus on how to achieve potentially satisfactory outcomes for the project manager, the software designer, the company, and the client (and their aviation end users) that would not have involved tolerating such a potentially tragic flaw in the work product, and which would have allowed the ethical responsibilities of all parties involved to be adequately discharged.

  • For example, after the bug was identified by the designer, the PM should have discussed the case with senior management in Occidental Engineering, in order to provide senior managers an opportunity to weigh in and make a proper decision. The consequences of the contractor hiding the bug could not only kill innocent people, but, as a result of a post-mortem review of such a failure, revelations of the cover-up could easily result in levying the “death penalty” (a ban on future contracts) against the company as a Federal contractor, destroying its reputation, perhaps even destroying the entire company. The PM had no right to make such a decision on her sole volition; her actions indeed it make it appear that perhaps her principal concern was not for the company or her co-workers, but in escaping criticism from senior management for her performance as a project manager. It may well be that the company managers would make the right decision and properly disclose the bug to the client, but either way it relieves both the PM and her project team of a responsibility that rightly belonged higher up the chain of command.
  • Another example: the company should have disclosed the defect to the client when delivering the software, and in doing so made specific commitments to correct the bug in the next release of the code. The client might not have been ecstatic to learn that the software has known bugs in the beta release, but anyone at all familiar with computer software knows that there is no such thing as bug-free software, particularly in an initial “beta” release issued for client testing. I believe that a reasonable client would accept such notification of that defect as evidence of a professional supplier with adequate concern for quality and commitment to honesty. As a client I would never trust any software developer that tells me their initial release was “bug free”. While it is possible that the client might downgrade the supplier for delivering beta software including such bugs, it is highly unlikely that the “death penalty” (contract termination) would be the result. Virtually all engineering design firms (and their errors and omissions liability insurance carriers) strive to write service contracts with clauses that specifically address defects and their correction. Such clauses provide for specific timeframes in which known or identified defects can be corrected without major penalties or contract termination. Full disclosure of all known defects to the client also flags the issue for the attention of the client to ensure that the bug is actually fixed.

Certainly the FAA retains some responsibility for their contracting and procurement processes and standards if they do not provide for reasonable selection methods and adequate compensation of contractors. Likewise effective contract documents also provide for adequate means and schedules for correcting identified defects in work products, especially those defects that involve or affect life-safety performance. “Low ball” bids – and the procurement processes that produce such bids - are or should be avoided, or at least viewed with extreme skepticism by the client’s source selection team. It is imperative for the buyer to ensure that the winning design proposals are actually reasonably priced, and that the design contractor is actually fully prepared to deliver as promised for the proposed price. Source selection for life-safety or other mission-critical engineering systems design should never be made on the basis of “low bid”. Indeed several of the major engineering professional societies discourage, and many State public agency engineering procurement laws prohibit, the bidding of engineering design services by government buyers.

As the bottom line in this discussion, and writing here as both an experienced engineering contractor and an experienced purchaser of engineering services, I can say that these kinds of situations are unfortunately extremely common, yet effectively manageable. If contract procurement and management are handled openly and honestly by all parties, with reasonable expectations in a spirit of cooperation and dedication to providing the “best value” to the client’s sponsors (in this case, the taxpayers, and for private entities, the owners or stockholders), the desired contract performance in most cases is not difficult to deliver. It is wise and useful to understand that no project of any nature ever executes perfectly, and that no engineering work product, especially not an initial or “beta” release of a software product, is ever going to be defect-free. So our challenge lies in anticipating, avoiding, correcting, and in some cases mitigating the risks of product defects.

It is very important to determine that the testing and review regime per the contract documents is adequate to identify all of the life safety-affecting bugs and other errors or defects, so that same can be corrected in a reasonable timeframe. Contract procurement and management regimes that are based upon an assumption of rigid perfection, with concurrent draconian punishments meted out for any imperfections, are destined to produce failures, often of the most spectacular kind. Open and honest communication, combined with trust and reasonable consequences for less-than-perfect performance, are the most likely means to produce the desired final results. The financial costs of correcting any identified defects, of course, must by borne in accordance with the terms of the contract documents via such mechanisms as warranty clauses, bonding, and/or performance-based contract compensation. The absolute worst outcome is when defects are not properly identified, tested and evaluated, or even disclosed once known, out of fear of excessive punitive reactions by the client, or by the employer of the project team. In the case of life-safety engineering systems, what we don’t know can kill us. Honesty and trust by all parties involved are not just “nice to have” – they are both essential to a successful outcome.

This text is a critique of the Occidental Engineering case study. You may also read Michael McFarland's Response to Practitioner on "Occidental Engineering."


Author: Duane J. Truitt, P.E., PMP.