Saturday, February 18, 2017

Automation takes away Jobs - A reality check

I am not talking about "test automation" here. There is media hype sweeping across these days on jobs being lost, people being fired, retrained on "cutting edge" technologies, re-assigned to new technologies etc . This quora question is an example of people's interest in this.

Let me do a deep dive into this topic

Its a media hype and sponsored Propaganda
If you read carefully into all such reports and media articles and some logic, analysis - it becomes clear that there is a hype and some group of people with vested self interest have been spreading the news. Most of these articles conclude with a call for the readers to do something to avoid "job loss" or any similar harm happening to them due to automation. It might point to learning some so-called "new tool" or "technology" or "take up a course (paid)" or "get a certification". So, commercial interest is apparent. For media, scaring people on some future danger has been a favorite tool to get its end meet. Be it in health care, business or Politics - spreading news about doomsday has worked well for media to form larger public opinion and even make public take actions. People rush to get themselves vaccinated or or buy a term insurance policy or get a health checkup or Hit Gym (commercial interest again) or take a training course - all such actions have a media negative propaganda in the background. As humans, through evolution we have in our blood, an affinity towards negative or bad news. We are likely to believe a prediction of a bad news than a more compelling good news. Media, Sales and Marketing folks exploit this. Can you see this in the tales about job losses through automation? They will scare you to core. When one is scared - rationality and judgemental faculties of human brain are at lowest level. Thus a bunch of scare folks first form opinions about a theme and almost act as expected by "scare-mongers".

What kinds of job are at danger through automation?
As compared to factories and manufacturing assembly line jobs needing human physical effort in addition to some cognitive efforts/skills - IT/Software jobs are/were considered as white color or brainy jobs. In IT and Software - jobs involve varying degree of human elements and intervention. Geniuses in IT services world, riding on outsourcing wave invented so called "low-risk" non strategic tasks such as  data entry and management.  These jobs were defined such that it merely required humans to follow some predetermined SOP (standard operating procedure) in a business process. When there is cost pressure, clients would ask service provider to bring in efficiency. How can one bring efficiency in such brain-dead jobs? Explore the option of reducing humans doing job that can be efficiently done by a machine or a software program. Enter "automation". Look around your business or place where you work - what are those jobs that do not require human intelligence and empathy? If you find such jobs - you can see them going away and given to robots of some sort.

In terms of software technologies side - people say older technologies are going away.  IT services companies providing outsourced technology services will need to support old technologies as long client pays for it. How long client will stay with old technology? That is a business and political question related to a client's business. Typically there is a huge cost to move from a legacy tech to a new tech - its is called "Migration" or "Re-engineering" program. Since such a "change" involves new learning for the staff, new infrastructure and cost of development/migration - businesses tend to stick around an old tech stack until a point when it absolutely becomes impossible to continue. When did businesses move from Windows XP to Windows 7 as desktop operating system ?  Around 2013 or so Microsoft announced end of support for Windows XP. This is an example of technology upgrade. As an individual - if you are stuck with an outdated technology- watch out.

Is this new?
What do you understand from the term "digital"? If it was early 90's - it would mean anything done using a "computer". Year 2000 onwards - it meant something done using internet. In last 6-8 years, it means "mobile". But at the core, in computing technology - the phrase "digital" compares with "analog". When did we last hear about "analog" computing devices? I had nice fun the other day arguing with a colleague on internet is as "digital" as mobile. She believed that qualifier "digital" applies to only "mobile". What will happen if quantum computers make way into mainstream computing - will those computers be called as digital?

Going digital for a business mean, in simple sense, a part or whole of business involve "mobile technology". This shift from desktop computers to internet to now mobile - has been causing many traditional jobs that were performed with "digital" technology - to go away. Just like digital camera era killed likes of photo film maker - Kodak.

Media propaganda makes one believe at first that such job losses are unprecedented and happening for the first time. In the past too - when computers first came, people who resisted them lost jobs as in some sense computer did the work better and cheaper than the humans. Some intelligent ones immediately re skilled themselves and embraced the change. These folks not only survived the technology change wave, some even flourished like never before.  Like biological evolution, business constantly keep looking for ways to make more money given constant or reducing capital and resources.

Your career is your responsibility
Software job, fortunately or unfortunately is not a job covered under an employee union (by and large there might be exceptions). When your company fires you without giving proper justification - you cannot knock some outside entity to get you reinstated. Businesses world wide using so called skilled and white collared jobs - can take liberty of downsizing workforce should going gets tough with falling revenues and profits. While on job, keeping one updated with skills in emerging areas of technology and business - becomes responsibility of the individual. 

In Infosys related quora post above - mentions that affected people are trained in "cutting edge" technologies. I ask - why do people do or get stuck in "blunt" or "old technologies" in the first place? Why do these folks (if at all they do) want their companies to take care of their careers or skills? Why cannot these folks keep improving the skills based on emerging market conditions? If a company displaces people working on a "blunt" technology due to low or no demand - should you blame the company? While keeping people working on some outdated technology might be a business imperative to companies - getting stuck in outdated technologies with or without knowledge at individual level is detrimental to one's career and society at large

 If you are happy with 9-5 cool job that does not require you to any great deal of application of skills or knowledge - be ready to have your job redundant any time. When jobs that do not require skills are lost - media might make noise about this. Again - if you see the vested interest behind these, it becomes obvious that it is an attempt to form public opinion in a specific one way away from the reality. You cannot depend upon your company to keep you in front-line tech or business work all the time. Its your job to be good at what is in demand and then have company to keep on fore-front.

When you hear "automation takes away jobs", ask "what kind of jobs" and what you are supposed to do ? Watch the reaction and share it with me. You should be able to smell vested interest behind such a claim.  Would you ?

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