Fixing independent programmers' no-win scenario

A hostile business climate is stifling entrepreneurship in software development, and the U.S. economy pays the price

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Fans of such contracts say structural engineers are routinely held accountable for the quality of building projects, and that software engineers should meet the same standard. But a software program with a security vulnerability isn't the same as a bridge that collapses because it was poorly designed. Modern software applications are incredibly complex systems, and they draw upon countless APIs and libraries whose quality may be beyond the control of any one developer. Under the terms of the SANS Institute's contract, nearly any bug could potentially be grounds for a lawsuit; while an employee of a large software vendor might be shielded from individual liability in such suits, an independent contractor would not.

And, as my colleague Bill Snyder recently wrote about in his InfoWorld blog, software developers now also face sloppily written new guidelines -- whose intent is noble but execution is poor -- on identifying software bugs.

Given these harsh realities, it's easy to see why software developers would give up on entrepreneurship. For many, the risks simply don't match the potential rewards. Better to keep their heads down, not rock the boat, and hope they can hang onto their jobs until retirement.

Reform is the best stimulus
This situation must change. In a knowledge economy, programmers rank among our most valuable workers, yet the current legal and regulatory climate makes a career as an independent software developer virtually a dead-end prospect.

That's great news for big software vendors such as Microsoft and Google. They'll be ensured an endless supply of programmers desperate for the safe haven of a steady paycheck, predictable taxation, health benefits, and a shield from civil prosecution when their code turns up buggy. But where will the next Microsoft come from? A field that discourages self-reliance sends the message that the status quo is the highest goal.

Worse, these problems affect American programmers only. Coders overseas aren't subject to taxation by the IRS, so Section 1706 doesn't apply to them. If they're lucky (and many are), their health care system isn't the disaster we have in the United States. In effect, by placing such onerous demands on independent contractors, the United States creates a ready-made market for offshore outsourcing firms such as Infosys and Wipro. They can afford to do the work; American contractors can't.

The Obama administration has already spent billions on the president's economic stimulus project, which the Congressional Budget Office says has saved or created millions of jobs. But tort reform, combined with a more modest health care reform proposal and the repeal of Section 1706 of the 1986 Tax Reform Bill, would go a step further. It would enable citizens to create new jobs at the grassroots level, by allowing out-of-work software developers to return to the economy as independent contractors with their own small businesses.

The alternative is to stick with what we have now: an economy that would sooner send business overseas than encourage entrepreneurship at home. You don't need to be a programmer to see that's just not logical.

This article, "Fixing independent programmers' no-win scenario," was originally published at Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest developments on software development at

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