Break the rules to help make the rules: how engineers lead by innovating.

W

e recently read an interesting story about a high school student who got sucked into a huge controversy when he made his first smartphone app. The app pulled info about his school from the school servers (like bell times and lunch menus), and made it conveniently readable on smartphones. But the controversy isn’t that he broke a bunch of school policies.

Actually, it didn’t break any policies. It made everyone realize there weren’t yet any rules at all. At least not about this story of stuff.

This is something a lot of engineers are familiar with. It’s inevitable when you’re making it your life to innovate and invent brand new things. People won’t know how to deal with some of the things you make, because they’re so new.

The problem here was that he pulled the info from the school’s servers. There’s a lot of other information stored there, much of which is confidential. He took it further by planning to make a paid version of the app. Selling state information (even stuff like lunch menus) is illegal.

The thing is, making an app like that paid should be legal, so long as customers buy it for the service of convenience and not the information (which is publicly available anyways).

But the fact that the student, who happened to be webmaster for the school’s website, had access to confidential stuff too, makes some people in charge really nervous. As a result of the controversy, he’s no longer webmaster and also can’t access the info he was pulling for his app.

Engineers face legal challenges from time to time, especially if they’re working in innovative markets. Things like smartphone apps are so new, they’re actually evolving faster than policymakers can chain them down with rules. And because of that, controversies like this are popping up. And that’s what you may face.

The obvious perk is that, as an engineer, you’ll be able to help shape the world for the better, after your own philosophies. And not just in the things you invent, but with the impact your inventions have.

Read on:

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