College was a superlative time in my life. I made lifelong friends, had many opportunities, and even started a little business.
The time at college wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for me. During Christmas Break of my sophomore year, my roommate suddenly passed away. It was tragic. A death at 19 is very difficult. He hadn’t even picked his major yet.1
Dealing with loss takes it out of you. The time was a blur. During the weeks and months after his death, one particular moment stands out for me. It causes tears of rage to swell up in my eyes. It’s likely one of the reasons why I’m still in the software game to this day.
About two weeks after he passed away, I was back in our dorm. His parents and I were going through the process of cleaning out his stuff from his room. They wanted to see how he lived and bring back a few things to remember him by. Other students would swing by, unsure of what to say, just to say hello and they were sorry.
Somewhere in the blur I got an email from what can best be described as a student bookkeeping system. It had sent an automated email that read along the lines of:
Subject: We have detected a vacancy in your room Body: Dear *|STUDENT_FIRST_NAME|*, We have detected a vacancy in your room. Please keep in mind there are not enough dorm rooms for those that wish to live on campus. As a result, we may assign you a new roommate. Go Lions! Sincerely, Your Friendly Campus System
You’re fucking right there was a vacancy.
The System had sent an automated email now that some school administrator had signaled that my roommate would not be returning that semester. This email could not have come at worse time. Everyone was at their absolute lowest.
I took this email to the coordinator of the building and let them know. He had no idea The System sent out emails like this. I asked for a few more weeks while we processed my roommate’s death. The coordinator keyed in an override to make sure there wouldn’t be anyone placed in the room for the semester. Hopefully he didn’t get chewed out for missing out on 4 months of dorm room revenue.
This is a story for building empathy into software.
There might be no reason to build the concept of “grief” into a dorm room assignment system. It likely wasn’t financially viable. It definitely was an edge case.
This is also a story of cosmic indifference. There are an intractable number of situations that a poor dorm room system might be subject to. The death of a student is just one. Even an empathetic engineer might not be able to cover all of the corner cases. Maybe she was just doing the best she could in her context.
I use this story as a reminder that every piece of software—no matter how seemingly trivial—must be designed with empathy even though we can never grasp all of its contexts. We should push ourselves to think about all of the cases and keep in mind the folks using the system at the end of the day. As implementers, it will sometimes be up to us to push back against deadlines or demands.
It’s up to us to make sure we deliver humane software and never settle for less.
Illustration was done by Ash Jin.
My roommate had a name, but I’ll be omitting it from this story for privacy reasons. I don’t want Google to rank him the highest for this particular story. ↩