Consider the 30 minutes after you wake up. Maybe you check your emails, read the news, listen to a podcast or go to the gym, using your key card to check in. What do these have in common? They all rely on software.

"Everything you do is infused by software created by millions of developers," says Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Overflow.

joel spolsky fogcreeksoftware youtube
Joel Spolsky first started out as a developer at Microsoft in 1991 © YouTube/FogCreekSoftware

"Developers are not just interchangeable cogs in a wheel. They are writing the script for the future," he adds.

Spolsky has been an advocate for developers from his first day at Microsoft in 1991 to today as CEO of Stack Overflow, a popular Q&A site for programmers he cofounded in 2008.

The pace of progress he's seen up to today has been incredible. "When I was small you could go from one year to the next without seeing the product of any software. Today, before you're even out of bed you could have run 37 different programs on your smartphone," he says.

However a focus on the people who actually create this software – the developers – has so far often been lacking, in Spolsky's view. This is despite the fact that they now make important ethical decisions about tools used by billions of people.

Facebook's echo chamber

He points to Facebook, which has 1.7 billion monthly users: over a fifth of the world's population. The way its algorithm operates is shrouded in mystery, despite its enormous reach and impact.

"Facebook is not showing all posts. It is choosing what to show you. An interesting question is to what extent does the Facebook algorithm tend to reinforce your preconceptions? Because that's what it has been trained to do," Spolsky says.

He suggests Facebook amplifies division in society, by creating an 'echo chamber' where people are generally only exposed to views they agree with.

For example, Spolsky estimates 90 percent of EU referendum-related posts he saw were for 'remain', despite the fact 52 percent voted 'leave'.

In 2014 Facebook secretly did an experiment on 700,000 users, manipulating what they saw on their timelines to either make them happy or sad.

"No one got their permission. In an academic setting it would be unethical. People were so shocked Facebook manipulated their emotions. But what do you think Facebook does all day long anyway?!" Spolsky asks.

To him, these both demonstrate how Facebook shapes what we do and do not see on our timelines – which can affect our mood, our political beliefs, even our relationships. It's an enormous amount of power. 

"Personally, Facebook makes me angry all day long. Even just the concept of it. I spend way more time on Twitter because it's showing me who I follow and when I'm tired of hearing from them I tune them out. Facebook is doing stuff that's a bit more weird and dynamic," he says.

Spolsky doesn't suggest that Facebook has some specific political agenda. However it is not a neutral actor either, and it is developers that are making a lot of these important decisions.

"Once you start creating a feed that lets in certain things and blocks others, whether desirable or not, that's certainly not neutral. It can't be. Much as Facebook likes to pretend that they're just cold and calculating and neutral about everything, they're not. Twitter is. Instagram still is, because they don't pick what to put in your feed- you do," he says.

Decreasing diversity

The ethical and societal significance of the decisions developers make grows in importance every single day, yet at the same time those developers are becoming increasingly homogenous, Spolsky says.

"The field [of technology] seems to have actually gotten more male dominated than it had even five years ago, when it was already heavily male dominated," he claims.

There is indeed some evidence to back up Spolsky's claim. Just 18 percent of computer science graduates in 2012 were female, down from 37 percent in 1987, according to US statistics.

When you look specifically within development, the statistics get even worse: US tech companies employ an average of just 12 percent women engineers, according to figures compiled by software engineer Tracy Chou.

It wasn't always this way – Spolsky himself says his mother was the first person in his family to program computers, in the 1970s. This gives him optimism that diversity can be improved.

"It's disappointing because the opportunities in programming are huge, as is the impact you can have on the world, the jobs are fantastic and can pay very well…but too many women look at the field and say 'that doesn't feel like a friendly place'. That's a shame," he says.

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