Circuit Break Podcast #413: The Gray Zone with Kent Johnson

Podcast Title: The Gray Zone with Kent Johnson

Release Date: 2024-01-16

Episode: #413

This week Parker and Stephen welcome Kent Johnson to the show to discuss ethics in engineering. It’s a topic that has been alluded to over the course of Circuit Break, but this is the first time Parker and Stephen have delved into it with a real expert on the matter. Yes, most companies have standards and regulations and a moral code that guide them but, as Kent suggests, there are more ethical gray areas in the realm of engineering than we might realize. Topics covered here include:

Podcast Audio:

Podcast Notes:

  • Discovering something isn’t being done properly at your new job
  • Agreeing to work on something with life-or-death consequences, and you don’t really know what you’re doing
  • Bypassing important project safety tests to meet a deadline
  • Crediting others in an age of ChatGPT and redefinitions of plagiarism
  • How do you credit and use open source code?
  • Why siloed departments at companies are causing such harm to work dynamics
  • The tyranny of the spec
  • The true dangers of “failure” or “gotcha” work cultures
  • Accepting accountability and being willing to change
  • Avoiding QC by zipping the lip
  • +more

About Our Guest

Kent Johnson is Senior Corporate Advisor for the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and a management consultant on religious diversity at work. With over 37 years of experience as a Senior Counsel at Texas Instruments, Kent is a seasoned legal expert who specializes in corporate law, ethics, product liability, antitrust, medical/FDA law, and mergers and acquisitions. Since leaving Texas Instruments in 2018, Kent has been helping companies adopt best practices regarding religious diversity and inclusion in the workplace. He is also Stephen’s father-in-law, so this really a family show this week.

Relevant Links

This episode reminded me of a story I heard back in college (around the early 80s), which I’d classify as a bit stronger than a mere rumor because it came from a grad student who had previously worked at this company.

Company H was reportedly caught red-handed cheating on the FCC acceptance tests of a new broadcast radio FM transmitter. There was one particular obscure test which the radio couldn’t pass, so a secret switch was installed to be flipped temporarily whenever said test was run. Exactly like the recent VW scandal.

I can’t find any reference to this online. Has anyone else ever heard this story? I suppose it’s possible that I’m misremembering things, and they did not get caught — therefore there wouldn’t be any record of it.

I also want to say this was a transmitter featuring some new technology, like stereo.

Last time I was at one of these FCC/CE compliance testing houses. You where not allowed to interact with the device during the tests. Maybe it stems from this.

Would not surprise me if there are similar stories of Firmware changes and the like to get through testing and compliance and then a “juiced” up firmware is what happens in production.

Interesting is a google search doesn’t bring up any companies fraudulently trying to get around FCC and CE emission testings. Dieselgate is a thing though.

Probably just look for who they fine.

My guess is most cheating is of this variety.

i.e. pass but then remove the stuff that made you pass as cost savings.

The rest probably just don’t bother certifying in the first place.

Interesting case. Looks like the company in question was just a resaler of the devices and the original manufacture changed the design under them.

Yeah, I thought of that too (not touching the devices). But I’ve only ever done consumer / industrial kinds of products. It could imagine the process might be a bit different for super big-bucks expensive broadcast transmitters. Heck, such a cheat could actually be in the instruction manual itself — When reconfiguring the transmitter for stereo operation, follow checklist in table 14-7 (which includes switching the cheater switch on).

I’m curious now. I think I can actually find that guy who told the story, and see if he can refresh my memory.

We have an audiogram for this episode now!

Pardon my ignorance— what’s an audiogram and how is it different than the usual podcast’s audio ?

Short excerpt from the podcast.

I thought of a twist for the FCC scenario discussed at the end.

Let’s say your device got tested and passed. Your sales are successful, and you’ve shipped many of them. While designing the next-generation product, you decide to rent an EMI receiver for pre-compliance testing. That’s when you discover your current shipping product does not actually pass. For this exercise, let’s just say you did enough investigation to determine you didn’t actually pass before.

What do you do? Do you do a recall? Even if the test lab could afford to help with one, would you want to take the marketing hit of people associating your product with an issue? Do you raise this issue to the FCC?

I wonder if there is an insurance or something similar you can have to hedge against this.

The ethical thing would be to work with the FCC and Test Facility to figure out where the fault was at and what to do.

Super interesting topic. I remember as a freshman being treated to “Gilbane Gold” and other scratchy engineering ethics case study videos in an intro to engineering class taught by a TA to check some sort of accreditation box.

My 18 year old takeaways were:

  1. Corporate will eventually ask you to do something unethical to save money.
  2. You should immediately blow the whistle by calling the evening news.
  3. This will definitely end your career.

I sort of wish they had taught material like this in a more nuanced way (along with soldering), in a required 1 credit “How do you survive in a real job” 300 level class, guest taught by local engineers/adjuncts in industry.

All the extremes! Maybe students should just listen to our podcast.