The Automator’s Dilemma

Automation is not to blame for all the job destruction and wage stagnation. But you can still do great harm if you build it for the wrong reasons.

We’re told that automation is destroying jobs, that technology is replacing people, making them dumber, less capable. These are lies, with just enough truth to confuse us. You can have my robot washing machines when you pry them from my cold, wet hands.

I’m not some Pollyanna, thinking tech is only ever positive. Its potential for abuse and hurt is visible across the centuries, and especially so today. But I’m more optimistic about the upside than I am pessimistic about the down, and I’m uninterested in scaremongering screeds against it.

And yet. Technology and automation are not forces of nature. They’re made by people. By you. And the choices you make help to determine just how much good or bad they do. Even with the best of intentions, you might be doing great harm. And if you don’t have good intentions at all, or you don’t think ethics are part of your job, then you are probably downright dangerous.

I’m here to convince you that you have a role in deciding the future impact of the technology you build, and to provide you — especially you founders, tool builders, automators — some tactical advice on how to have the best impact, and avoid the dark timeline.

As I was building Puppet, explaining that I was developing automation for operations teams, execs and sales people would think they got it: “Oh, right, so you can fire SysAdmins!”

Ah. No.

When prospective customers asked for this, I offered them a choice: You can keep the same service quality and cut costs, or you can keep the same cost, and increase service quality. For sysadmins, that meant shipping better software, more often.

Their response? “Wait, that’s an option?!” They only knew how to think about their jobs in terms of cost. I had to teach them to think about quality. This is what the whole DevOps movement is about, and the years of DevOps reports Puppet has published: Helping people understand what quality means, so they can stop focusing on cost.

And those few people who said they still wanted to reduce cost, not increase quality? I didn’t sell to them.

Not because they were wrong. There were real pressures on them to reduce costs, but I was only interested in helping people who wanted to make things better, not cheaper. My mission was completely at odds with their needs, so I was unwilling to build a product to help them fire their people.

This might have been stupid. There are good reasons why a CEO might naturally build what these people want. The hardest thing in the world to find for a new product is a motivated prospective customer who has spending authority, and here they are, asking for help. The signal is really clear:

You do a bunch of user interviews, they all tell the same story of needing to reduce cost, and in every case, budgets are shrinking and the major cost is labor. Great, I’ll build some automation, and it will increase productivity by X%, thus enabling a downsizing. The customer is happy, I get rich, and, ah, well, if you get fired you probably deserved it for not investing enough in your career. (I heard this last bit from a founder recently. Yay.)

This reasoning is common, but that does not make it right. (Or ethical.) And you’ll probably fail because of your bad decisions.

Let’s start with the fact that you have not done any user interviews. None.

The only users in this story are the ones you’re trying to fire. Executives aren’t users. Managers aren’t users. It seems like you should listen to them, because they have a lot of opinions, and they’re the ones writing checks, but nope.

This has a couple of consequences. First, you don’t understand the problem if you only talk to buyers, because they only see it at a distance. You have to talk to people on the ground who are doing the work. Be careful when talking to them, though, because you might start to empathize with them, which makes it harder to help fire them.

Even if you do manage to understand the problem, your product will still likely fail. As much as buyers center themselves in the story of adopting new technology, they’re largely irrelevant. Only the people at the front line really matter. I mean, it’s in the word: Users use the software. Someone, somewhere, has to say: Yes, I will use this thing you’ve built, every day, to do my job.

If you’ve only talked to buyers, you have built a buyer-centric product, rather than a user-centric one. Sure, maybe you got lucky and were able to build something pretty good while only talking to managers and disrespecting the workers so much that you think they’re worthless. But I doubt it. You’ll experience the classic enterprise problem of closing a deal but getting no adoption, and thus not getting that crucial renewal. Given that you usually don’t actually make money from a customer until the second or third year of the relationship… not so great.

Users aren’t stupid. Yes, I know we like to act like they are. But they aren’t. If your value promise is, “Adopt my software and 10% of your team is going to get fired,” people know. And they won’t use it, unless they really don’t have a choice. Some of that is selfish — no one wants to help team members get fired, and even if they’re safe today, they know they’re on the block for the next round of cuts. But it’s just as likely to be pragmatic. You’re so focused on downsizing the team that you never stopped to ask what they need. Why would someone adopt something that didn’t solve their problems?

What’s that you say? You ignored their problems because you were focused on the boss’s needs? This is why no one uses your software. Your disrespect resulted in a crappy product.

Call me a communist, but I think most people are skilled at their jobs. I am confident that I can find a learned skill in even the “low skill” labor. I absolutely know I can in most areas people are building software.

I was talking to a friend in a data science group in a software company recently, and he was noting how hard it was to sell their software. He said every prospective buyer had two experts in the basement who they could never seem to get past. So I asked him, are you trying to help those experts, or replace them?

He said, well, our software is so great, they aren’t really necessary any more.

There’s your problem. You’re promising to fire the only two people in the whole company who understand what you do. So I challenged him: What would your product, your company look like if you saw your job as making them do better work faster, rather than eliminating the need for them?

It’s a big shift. But it’s an important one. In his case, I think it’s necessary to reduce the friction in his sales process, and even more importantly, to keep those experts in house and making their employers smarter, rather than moving them on and losing years of experience and knowledge.

The stakes can get much bigger than downsizing. In his new book, Ruined By Design, Mike Monteiro has made it clear that designers and developers make ethical choices every day. Just because Uber’s and Instacart’s business model requires that they mistreat and underpay workers doesn’t mean you need to help them. While I don’t think technology is at fault for most job losses, there absolutely are people out there who see the opportunity to make money by destroying industries.

This is not fundamentally different than the strip mining that happened to corporations in the 1980s, except back then they were making money by removing profit margin in companies and now they’re making money by removing “profit” margin in people’s lives. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has famously said your margin is his opportunity, and his warehouse workers’ experiences makes clear that he thinks that’s as true of his employees as it is of his suppliers and competitors.

Just because they’re going to get rich ruining people’s lives doesn’t mean you have to help.

I think your job matters. I think software can and should have a hugely positive impact on the world; not that one project can by itself make the world better, but that every person could have their life improved by the right product or service.

But that will only happen if we truthfully, honestly try to help our users.

When, instead, we focus too much on margin, on disruption, on buyers, on business problems…. we become the problem.

We Were Promised Flying Cars and Five Hour Work Weeks

Work is not a zero-sum game

Image courtesy of Clem Onojeghuo

Remember those stories from a few decades ago, about how improvements in productivity and automation would mean that we’d only be working 5 hours a week by now? They seem as fanciful, and predictive, as The Jetsons.

It’s almost a punch-line now, because many actually work more hours today than back then. How could they have been so stupid?

Of course there is actually a lot baked into the fact that higher productivity has not reduced hours worked (nor, it turns out, has it raised wages for the bottom 50% of earners in the last three decades, quite contrary to the previous, oh, 200 years). But a big part of why that prediction seems so silly now is it included an implicit assumption: That the work we’d be doing today is pretty much the same as what we did then. You know, before computers.

And I don’t mean, they could not foresee how much time we’d waste on social media. Their primary mistake was not thinking about how we’d use the space created by greater productivity.

We’ve known for centuries that increased efficiency results in increased consumption — we keep improving fuel efficiency, yet we’re consuming more gas than ever. Why?

We also know that expanding a freeway has never reduced traffic congestion. It has the same cause.

Induced demand. People who would not have driven with only two lanes, because of all the traffic, will now drive if there are four lanes. Trips you would not have taken because of the gas cost now become affordable and reasonable.

If your goal was to get more people driving, and maybe get the resulting increase in economic activity, then I suppose you got what you wanted. But if you were trying to reduce traffic — which is why most people say they want more freeways — then you’ve failed. If anything, you made it worse, because now twice the number of people are stuck in traffic. You didn’t reduce the problem, you just spread it around.

Demand is induced in many other areas. I grew up remodeling houses with my dad and got to see the impact of pneumatic nail guns and paint sprayers, which automated a huge chunk of how we’d spent our days. Of course, we didn’t use that newly free time to sit around, we changed our behavior: We did higher quality work, we finished jobs faster so got more done in a year, and we lowered prices.

I ran into this perception conflict all the time as I was building Puppet. I’d say I was building automation for the data center, and salespeople and execs would say, “Oh, so you can fire sysadmins!” I don’t know what they had against operations teams, but no, I would respond: I can give you a choice between reduced cost at the same service level (i.e., you fire people), or keep costs the same but increase service quality.

“Wait, that’s an option?!” Without higher level tools like Puppet, people had no idea how to increase service quality. Cost was their only dial, so they focused on that, even if it made no sense. Once I gave them other choices, of course they wanted better quality.

So where success in 1999 was shipping twice a year, and not going down, like, that often, now success is shipping multiple times a day and never appearing down to your customers. The standards have changed entirely, and that change was made possible mostly through automation. You can bet Netflix doesn’t become the new standard for infrastructure hotness using the bad old manual practices of the 90s.

You might say, no, people’s standards changed and that’s what motivated them to invest in automation, but you would be wrong. They always wanted higher quality. They always wanted better service. They just felt they had no choice but to accept the status quo, until we showed them other options.

I’m not saying automation never destroys jobs, never reduces the amount of work to be done in an area. But it’s by no means the default result.

The first impact of automation is to increase quality. I felt this myself, building houses. The main reason I’m no longer a carpenter is because of how incompetent I was at setting trim nails. You drive the nail most of the way into the wood1, then use a small punch to recess it. You cover that one little hole in spackle, and no one can tell. Unless you’re me. When I do it, I make a little sunflower, with a hole in the middle and holes all around in a circle, because I’m just that good at letting the punch head slide off the nail, into the wood. If we’d had the trim nailers that exist now, even I could have done a decent job. That kind of success might not have driven me out of the industry and into the welcoming arms of computers. I’m not a lot better typist, but the delete key does wonders for my self-confidence.

And let’s be honest about what we’re automating: It’s literally the most boring and least useful work we do. I wasn’t exactly high skilled labor, but I assure you there were more valuable things for me to do than try to set a nail while on my knees, bent over to the base molding. As a SysAdmin, yeah, my bosses thought my job was typing the same command 1000 times a day, but we can look back now and see that definition actually got in the way of the work, rather than being it. We had much more important stuff to do. Or at least, I did. Not sure about the bosses.

If we were all willing to drive cars from the 70s, while living in houses from the 70s (oh god the colors), using computers from the 70s (all three of them), watching channels from the 70s (all three of them), then yeah, maybe we could also work 5 hours a week.

But we all know what we’d do with the spare time: We’d make more work.

You’d do something silly, like write a book. And obviously, most of those books would be junk, but enough would be good that it would become someone’s job. And maybe the other writers didn’t actually have a knack for writing, but found they could be great at helping other writers. Oops, now you’re an editor, or a publisher. And now you’re working more than five hours a week again!

Stupid entrepreneurship.

Or maybe you don’t want to be a writer, you just hate Avocado Green enough to do something different with your kitchen. Oops, now your friends want the same thing, and you’re an interior designer.

Or maybe you realize that the gas-guzzling death-traps we all drive in are insane, and you figure out some way to start bringing those sweet little rides over from Japan. You know, just to fill the time. Because you can only consume so much of your day watching three channels (and remember, no ESPN in this scenario).

You’re not the only one that’s bored. Everyone else has more time, and a need to fill it. They can spend the effort to become experts in watches, furniture, bicycles, hiking, boating, economics, philosophy, or any number of other areas. And we all know the main outcomes of expertise, beyond insufferable newsletters: Demand for more specialized stuff, or enough disgust at the lack of it that you’ll just do it your darn self.

Some number of us won’t do the work, but we still want more, because why else would I have read three books on horology? It only takes a few people to step in to fill that demand, and suddenly your time is taken up.

And of course, if you want to buy that fancy Patek Philippe to pass on to your kid, you probably need to work a few more hours than the minimum.

So now you know why we don’t work five hours a week, and hopefully you have a little more confidence that automation will generally be good, not bad. It’ll create more entrepreneurs, raise wages, increase quality, and reduce cost. Not every time, but most times.

It doesn’t explain why those prognosticators in the 70s were so silly, but, well, I bet it wasn’t the worst decision they made that decade.

  1. 16oz Estwing finish head with a curved claw, natch.