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The Machines Are Coming – Automation Is Nigh

I have previously touched upon automation here, and here. I am forced to revisit the topic again because now things are becoming a little closer to comfort. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine who works as the lead in the database team were discussing about tech in general and he told me that they have received official emails from HR elaborating upon the effects of Automation. Then, the same thing with my own office, and other places too. Till only a few weeks, this was all just rumors and news clips, but now it seems like this thing is really happening.

In a way, it does not take a super genius to realize that this is happening. For five years now (since I became an independent consultant) I have been cajoling, requesting and begging any and all students and professionals alike that run into me to think of this day arriving. Some (may be 1 out of a 100) took my advice, but even in those 1’s who took my advice, very few actually followed through on the advice. In some ways, it is a bitter sweet moment for me because my predictions and forecasting is coming true (sweet) but so many of these folks who had 5 years to prepare will soon be unemployed, or continue to remain unemployed (the bitter part), at least in their chosen field of career i.e. software. Sure, many of them will have to migrate horizontally to unrelated industries (because, let’s face it, jobs are always available for skilled folks) which is sort of a bummer.

Repetitive tasks have always been under threat by machines since the invention of machines. I remember watching this old Hindi movie Sholay, where there was one guy who’s sole job was to put coal into the coal fire room. Of course, later trains replaced this manual fueling with automatic fueling, so that guy’s job was doomed. Horses were replaced by cars, so all the horses lost their jobs. Traffic signal systems took over the jobs of many traffic signal folks. Closer at home, (and brag shamelessly) I am now working on an assignment which only 2 years ago would be done by at least 15 developers.

This is not to say that I am so awesome. It only goes to say that code automation has improved so much, that more can be done by less. I mean, entire trains can be manned and operated by no more than two train folks, I am sure. Testing is become automated like crazy. There are websites that allow interested business folks to build entire solutions (as long as they don’t need super serious customization and are happy with the available default options). On an individual level, I manage my own domain, servers, databases, backup systems, email service, all thanks to Microsoft Azure, with surprising ease. Tomorrow, if I should end up building a company, I doubt if I will have a dedicated IT team. I will simply manage it myself (on my smartphone, no less!), and spend zero money on either hardware or software. Again, the magic of automation!

10 years ago, I would have to spend money on everything from hardware to software to air conditioning and some guy to manage all this. Of course, there have always been managed IT solutions but they come with their own baggage like annual commitments, fixed cost operations and of course, limited flexibility. I mean, let’s say I sign a contract for 3 mail boxes, I would have to do it for a year. Now, if I layoff 2 people the next day of signing the contract, I am stuck with the bill for a year. With the cloud email service, I use the admin panel and simply cancel the extra email box. At most, I may have to pay for the current month and be done with it. Later, if 2 more employees should be hired, it takes a few minutes at most to create them new email addresses.

The more I think about it, the more I can see the appeal of automation, from a business perspective. Isn’t this what is already happening with online services? If one where to look at non-online stuff, I would rather shop at a super market (where I can pick items at my own leisure) than at a mom and pop store where I provide a list of items and the shopkeeper picks up the items for me. One reason I prefer booking tickets online is because I don’t want to deal with the ticket guy or girl who slow down the whole process, what with the time it takes for them to print the ticket out, look for the change, chit chat with their co-workers and being forced to smile and all that. Of course, getting them to give me exact seats I want (even the movie hall is empty) can be a hassle sometimes.

Overall, the essential idea (while detaching myself from related ethical concepts) is to remove the human element or reduce the human element entirely. For instance, many movie halls have now begun to allow patrons to simply flash the online ticket directly from their smartphones so that even that small step of ‘collecting tickets’ is eliminated. Does it mean that we should not interact with humans at all? I am not going to ask the ethical questions related to that, so I won’t answer the question here, nor is this the place to do the same.  Of course, better people, and more influential than me have already asked such questions. The banking industry asked and answered that questions when they replaced bank tellers with ATMs. The government asked and answered the question when they replaced traffic signal folks with automated traffic signals. Large IT organizations will now have to ask and answer similar questions as ever more software related tasks are taken over by automated engines.

As with the earlier blog posts, the solution to any challenge is to see what is being removed and what could be replaced. The march of technology has always been about allowing others to up their game. When cars started replacing horse carriages, the same folks who were driving the horse upped their game by learning how to drive the car. Horses had limited range which reduced the distance that people travelled. Once cars came, the distances increased. Costs became lower, so more people could afford it. Same thing with ATMs and Traffic Signals. People were given an opportunity to do more in their lives. They no longer had to do a menial task of checking the books and collecting cash/giving cash. They could do more with their super awesome brains. Let’s never forget. Our brains are awesome! When the brain starts doing stuff, more things happen, and the economy becomes bigger, creating even more jobs. Awesomeness leads to even more awesomeness.

Obviously, I have been preparing for it for the last 5 years. Unless my preparation is fatal, I would like to think I am already equipped for an automated world. I have believed that what I do (the work of a developer, and I am only halfway decent) and what we developers do is integrate systems. No matter what project I have working, most of the time is spent integrating different systems.

Take my beloved Project TD for instance. Although I am developing it, the project itself depends on all sorts of external, open source projects for everything. The IT part (servers and related stuff) is also automated. I don’t have an IT team managing anything. I am managing it with no input from any third party. Project TD is already doing extensive automation of so many things. Visual Studio already does so many things automatically for me. As have mentioned many times in the posts related to Project TD, I am harnessing every possible iota of automation so that I myself can build the entire thing with little or zero outside assistance.

In other words, although I am technically a developer, I am spending all my work hours, integrating one system with other. In other words, I am an integrator who also programs and codes and develops when the occasion calls for it. To some extent, integration is perhaps that one thing, automation is yet to do. Automation depends on the assumption that a given task in repetitive. Integration is rarely repetitive. For instance, the process of buying a movie ticket is repetitive (once the movie is chosen, of course) but the selection of the food items during the interval is not. I might choose to combine samosas with extra sauce or go with chutney and coke. Alternatively, I could pick samosas, no sauce or chutney, and opt for tea to go with it.

Similarly, anytime there is a matter of choice, a human must be involved. Anytime there is repetition, automation will take over. Developers who are aware this will equip themselves to make sure that their skills are aligned on the ‘choice’ part of the software development. Those who refuse to see this (either by design i.e. denial or accident i.e. they are unaware, not being educated) … I don’t know.

I just don’t know. 

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Economic Policy Effect - Layoffs and Employment Challenges

The economy of any nation is a complicated web of interconnected links. One disturbance at one distant corner will have impact on the entire web. Similar one 'good thing' at another corner, will create impact on the entire web. That is how it is, and that is how it should be.

As of this blog writing, my country, India, is going through some changes, economic situation wise. A huge chunk of our currency has been declared not-legal tender. Reclaiming this tender involves exchanging to new tender or coverting it into money in number form, like at the bank account. Enough digital ink has been spilt about the inconvenience as well as the convenience of this policy, so I wont add much to that.

My job (as I say again and again) involves meeting a lot of people. Students who are still in college to people who have graduated but looking for an opportunity, those who are currently employment but looking for a change of scenario, and those who are simply planning for the future even if they are doing alright. All these folks meet me and sometimes I run into them. Other times, I simply go on social media and see what might past students are doing, and how they are faring in their lives.

I have had my thougths about the new economic policy had affected my former students, and it just happens that I got to meet two of them, and each of them had stories that reflected my views. One student who completed training by me, informed me that he/she is not going to put down her papers. It goes without saying that he/she was considering doing that earlier. Another student said that, he/she has been simply...let go. Both of these individuals were reasonably bright and had sufficient skills. Yet, they both find themselves in a relatively less nice situation.

The reasons given by them are that companies in general dont have work to give them. The reasons, my guess, are many. Although IT is part of the formal sector of the economy, some of its clients might still be cash based. This is not unheard of. I have heard of folks walking in to a BMW car dealership and buying their most expensive cars wtih bags of cash. That being the case, These cars cost crores, so it is entirely possible many clients were indeed dealing in cash. Another issue could be with start ups. All startups depend on investor money rather than actual revenue to manage their company. That is what start up means. When the investor quits, the project is paused or shut down, and the folks are now without employment.

These customers and investors who are pulling out, they may not be doing it because their money was earned in the wrong way. It is quite possible that they are doing it because of uncertainty. The current economic policy is something that is radical and new. There are no case studies about how it will play out. Everybody from the so called common man to the industry experts are making guesses. It's the future, so lots of things are up in the air.

When such uncertainty exists, folks need to adjust their plans. My student who has decided to stay put, will probably have to stay that way for another 6 months to 12 months. The other student who was laid is probably looking at a job hunt which will extend the same duration - 6 months to 12 months. It goes without saying that I am doing my part in making things easier for them, either via giving them additional training and helping them with job references.

Obviously, I also gave them advice about what they could do, while they wait. As I always keep saying, it all comes down to skill and experience. The economy will go up, and it will come down. If you wish to survive, you got to have skills. A cocktail of skills will ensure that you can apply yourself in multiple sections of the economy. Further, these skills need to be above what is currently available in the industry.

Lastly, planning for good and bad stuff. This can ony happen if you have people in your life - mentors (those older folks who have been doing this for a while) - who can advise and guide about being prepared. Of course, it follows that you actually have to listen to your mentors. There were a couple of times when I ignored my mentors, and things went horribly bad for me. Of course, I later went back, parked my ego aside, apologized and accepted my fault. So yeah, listening to mentors and following up on their advice can go a long way in avoiding disastrous scenarios.

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