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Automation at Work

By Steve Jones,

I do worry about the future of work for large sections of people. When I read pieces like this one in the Atlantic on automation, there are two things that come to mind. First, we are mindlessly sticking with 19th century models of work in many cases. Second, there are opportunities that could dramatically utilize the leverage of computing power to reduce our need for humans in many cases.

Far too often I've seen processes and procedures in place that exist strictly because of historical precedence. We developed some way of working, likely because of expediency. We needed something done, so we found a way for a human to do it. We continue to do it that way, often because of a factory mentality. We don't trust workers, who come and go, to handle the process correctly, so we specify a way of doing things that we know works. Even if it doesn't work well.

What's amazing to me is that many of us still do this in technological jobs. I find lots of DBAs and infrastructure people that still do an amazing amount of manual work to check logs, jobs, backups, etc. They avoid automation for a variety of reasons, but often because of laziness and fear. They don't want to think and put time into changing a process, both avoiding coding as well as asking permission. They also fear for their jobs, as shown in the article. Automate too much and maybe the company will replace you with a less skilled, far cheaper worker.

Perhaps I'm an outlier, but this has never been something I've seen in my career. When I automate things and free up time at work, I don't sit and browse Reddit play chess, as a few profiles from the article show. Instead, I'm more like Gary. I look for, and find, ways to improve other aspects of the company. I help others. I provide more "value" for my salary. This has worked well, even in companies that had a culture of "just do your job.". There are always a few managers that want thinkers and doers, not just people that mindlessly move through each day.

Automation is coming, more and more every day. As I look at the evolution of the data platform from Microsoft, the growth and capabilities of cloud services, and even the amazing third party products that free up our time, I know that the bar is constantly raising for the skills we require. What we might have expected only senior level people to do in 1999, we expect juniors to know now. Not everywhere, and certainly plenty of older management is stuck with their historical views of "just do this job," but times are changing if you seek a new employer.

I want to see more scripting, more PowerShell, more Bash scripts, more DevOps pipelines, more systems doing tedious work. That's because many of our scripts and our flows are still rudimentary. They're basic, expecting the happy paths to work, with limited testing and error handling. Instead, I'd like to automate myself out of work, but then find ways to better script more robust processes, with ways that double check my code is working, and alert me when it's not. With new responses that are more intelligent than  a simple IF..THEN statement. 

We have lots of room to improve in how we structure systems and code, whether in application development or infrastructure management. Hopefully we'll all start to embrace more automation, and look for new opportunities rather than being fearful of change.

 
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