When a company figures out how to automate a core process, executives and stockholders cheer. Money has been saved! The business has become more efficient! The future looks bright!
But when a tech pro figures out how to automate a substantial chunk of their job, they often live in fear. What if their boss thinks they’re no longer useful? What if they’re terminated, and replaced by a cheaper someone whose only job is to click a few buttons?
That conundrum is the focus of a new article in The Atlantic, which cites two prominent cases of tech pros automating their workflows. Both of the tech pros in question posted anonymously on Reddit and Workplace Stack Exchange, making verification difficult— but the stories are very similar. In simplest terms, these workers figured out that the bulk of their jobs could be handled via some simple scripts; after implementing their solutions, they ended up working only a few minutes per week, if that.
Sounds pretty good, right? Not so fast. As one of these two anonymous automators wrote on Workplace Stack Exchange: “Now the problem is, do I tell [my boss]? If I tell them, they will probably just take the program and get rid of me.” S/he even inserted a few bugs on occasion “to make [the result] look like it’s been generated by a human.”
Let’s leave aside the deliberate insertion of bugs into otherwise clean product, which everyone can pretty much agree is a huge no-no (it’s not just deceitful; you’re also complicating the lives of other workers downstream of you). If you complete the tasks you’re assigned, but don’t need to work very much (or at all) to do so, are you cheating your employer? If you’re not paid on a per-hour basis, do you still “owe” your employer 40 hours per week (or 60 hours, or whatever) in front of a screen?
Some would argue that a company ultimately cares only about results, and that as long as you deliver, the rest shouldn’t matter. But there’s a big counter-argument, and it goes something like this: At a certain point, unannounced automation may cross a line into deception. Maybe it involves racking up unearned PTO days, or taking benefits even though you’re technically not working enough hours; maybe it’s something as simple as lying when your boss asks you what you’re working on that day.
The reporter for The Atlantic, Brian Merchant, spoke to some other tech professionals who had largely automated their positions. One feared that his employer would “claim the [automation] IP as its own and refuse to compensate him,” while another “once inadvertently automated an entire department into redundancy.” This kind of dread can prevent people from speaking out about their innovations.
But here’s the thing: No good company would cut an employee who showed creativity and initiative in making things more efficient. Indeed, they might even promote such an employee, giving them higher-level tasks to handle. And if the company does decide to make the automator’s role redundant—well, tech unemployment is low at the moment, and lots of companies will snatch up someone with skills.
For tech pros whose jobs are becoming rapidly more automated (either because of other folks’ software, or because of code they’re writing themselves), it will pay off long-term to keep learning new skills. That will keep you relevant in the market. Maintaining your connections and soft skills is also vital to continued employment.
Tech pros are well aware of the potential threat posed by automation. However, some analyst firms don’t think A.I. and automated platforms will lead to a high degree of job destruction in the years ahead. “Workers of the future will spend more time on activities that machines are less capable of, such as managing people, applying expertise, and communicating with others,” read a report from McKinsey Global Institute. “The skills and capabilities required will also shift, requiring more social and emotional skills and more advanced cognitive capabilities, such as logical reasoning and creativity.”
That just emphasizes the need to keep one’s skills sharp. If you do automate your job, speaking out about it—and using it as leverage for a promotion or more interesting work—might be your best move.