March of the Machines (Automation)

Saw a tweet about and interesting piece in ABC News Australia Digital disruption: How science and the human touch can help employees resist the march of the machines. Basically, many jobs are going away due to automation. W.I.R.E.D. has a similar story: Robots Will Steal Our Jobs, But They’ll Give Us New Ones.

One of the long struggles I have ever pushed in my career is automation of machines. My approach falls along the line of: if it is going to be done more than once or will take a really long time by hand, then it needs to be automated. This is hard to do. The temptation is to do it by hand once, see how it went, then write a script which does it for the next time. The trouble being that if this is done between having completed the first one and the second, then there is little incentive. Best is to make the automation part of doing it the first time, the second time can include any remediation necessary to make it more perfect.

All this automation makes us more effective employees. My team of three managed hundreds of web servers and dozens of database servers for ten sites. Without automation that would have been a nightmare. The replacement product was more difficult to automate so with fewer servers we needed more people. Yet the drive to better automation is making lives easier. (Technically I left that program about a year ago when my replacement was hired and took over my spot in the on-call rotation.)

A fear I hear about automation is that people will lose their jobs. It reminds me globalization and manufacturing moving overseas to China. Highly repetitive, mindnumbing jobs were the most at risk and as those work forces got better, what was at risk moved up the complexity ladder.

The fear of both globalization and automation led to books like A Whole New Mind. The idea is that if your job is highly repetitive or analytical, then it is at risk to these forces. Becoming the person who designs, describes, coordinates, or finds meaning in stuff (aka “right brain” activities) is the way to survive the coming storm. This book very influenced how I started thinking about my work.

Back in 2003, I automated everything I could because I was overwhelmed with work and little resources beyond great computers and my own skill to make it better. My supervisees focused on meeting with the clients to talk about the web site they wanted and build that. I wrote code to report about or fix problems to prevent people needing to call or email about problems.

Where I wish we would head is more like You Really Don’t Need To Work So Much. I meant to send this to my boss (maybe he’s reading this blog)? All our efficiencies should mean we have less to do not more, so why do we work so hard?

The past fifty years have seen massive gains in productivity, the invention of countless labor-saving devices, and the mass entry of women into the formal workforce. If we assume that there is, to a certain degree, a fixed amount of work necessary for society to function, how can we at once be more productive, have more workers, and yet still be working more hours? Something else must be going on.

From my experience, the to-do list gets ever larger. Not because there is more to do, but because more is possible. I’d just rather spend more of my time on solving hard problems than easy repetitive tasks.

P.S. This post really only exists because I loved the phrase “March of the Machines” enough I wanted it as a title for something on this blog.

IT Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow proposed a theory in A Theory of Human MotivationPsychological Review, motivation works to fulfill baser needs before addressing loftier needs. In a discussion the other day, I mentioned we have to have a rock solid infrastructure and stability of services to the point they are a utility and no users think about them causing them problems before we can focus well on innovation.

It occurred today maybe this would be an information technology equivalent to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The IT Value Hierarchy proposes something that looks like what I was thinking.

    • Paradigm Shift at the top
    • Competitive Differentiation
    • Integrated Information
    • Security and Stability
    • Infrastructure at the base

Once the infrastructure issues are solved such that the foundation is solid, then organizational focus can turn to security and stability. Without a solid infrastructure, security and stability are undermined. People fight fires that distract them from what they should be doing. The investments in equipment and time should be prioritized to ensure these.  The message from leadership should recognize the infrastructure foundation as more of a priority to get right than innovation at the time. Signalling the paradigm shift is most important means we should neglect the foundation. Not that we really can neglect the foundation, it just becomes a constant barrage of emergencies such that the paradigm shift becomes painful.

Square Peg, Round Hole Outlook

Requirement: Boss wants an email on the 14th of the month and day before last weekday of the month with a status update. This is so the boss can combine and submit the information on the 15th and last weekday of the month.

Reoccurring Outlook calendar entries can apparently take only one pattern. There is no way to make one calendar entry for multiple patterns. I cannot make one for say both the 14th and 28th or even worst the 14th and last weekday.

There is no concept of day before last weekday or day. At first, I looked at setting the reminder for the 28th, which could be the day before the last day of February in a leap year and last day of a non-leap year. However, it would be as many as 2 days too early for most other months.

Reluctant Solution: Set the entry for the last weekday and the reminder for 2 days prior. I get the reminder in time even if the date is not ideal.


Pick Two

A while back, I noticed a Venn diagram for the Project Triangle which added free. The only problem is that it was for graphic design. For what I do, providing services and integrations, I thought only “dipped in ugly sauce with haste and carelessness” needed adjusting. Creately was surprisingly easy to whip together this version of Project Triangle For Systems Administration.

When I first arrived, the focus was on great. We happened to be cheap too, but there was no pressure to be cheaper. Lately the encouragement has been to sacrifice great for fast and cheap to get closer to that impossible utopia. My worry is we will move through a breaks often period before we learn that it really is an impossible utopia. UPDATE 2011-APR-12: We focus on great and cheap right now. So the clients complain about it not being fast. If we shift our focus to fast and great, then they will complain about the cost. If we shift our focus to fast and cheap, then they will complain about it not being great. There is no panacea where everyone is happy. Yet we change in hopes that change makes us look responsive to the complaints.

The problem is the frame, where the clients are focused. Rather than redirecting that attention to where we are providing value, we want to fix it. If we magically could so there were no problems, then we would have….

Hawthorne Effect

At work we are being asked to enter the amount of time we spend on certain activities into an online form. This is ostensibly so some people can get a handle on where people at my level (the bottom) can get better a sense of where we are putting our efforts. Yet, we are not supposed to go to any great effort to track what we do. (I think the assumption is we already know on what we spend our time.)

It makes me wonder though if anyone planning this anticipated the Hawthorne effect? By putting observers in factories, productivity improved. Nothing changed except people being worried about reprisals while anticipating the ramifications of the observers. This means the results are biased and non-reflective of what people actually will do. For this time tracking stuff, the observers are the bosses who have to review the data we record and approve it. Yes, self-reporting information is a horrible way to get at this information accurately, yet that is the method chosen. Combine self-reporting with not spending a lot of time tracking it accurately, I’m going to guess accurate data is not desired so much as anything more than a complete lack of data. Possibly completely wrong data is okay as long as there is something upon which to be able to make decisions.

So… Personally, I am trying out RescueTime to get a better sense of where I spend my time.

Water I Need

The power going out is something with which I can live. The gas can go out too for all I care. I do not have cable and rarely use the telephone. Yet, the water I need. Hygene and hydration are extremely important to me.

The downward spiral of Israel and Palestine is going to get worse. Anyone who thinks that this is going to be resolved in a few months is delusional. Personally, I’ve been disappointed with coverage of the conflict from American media sources. The BBC World Service comes on the radio after midnight and has had in my opinion a significantly more balanced report of events.

I never thought I would see a Dilbert cartoon come to life.