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The ethics of automation: Is it bad to automate my entire job?

13 Sep 2017

For most people, the idea of being replaced at work fills them with terror.

Most, but not all.

I recently read about how one IT professional automated their entire job. As awesome/interesting/horrifying as that sounds, it’s not the first time this kind of thing has hit the news.

Several years ago, another IT guy did the same thing, except instead of using software, he outsourced his work to China.

But automation technologies, from macros to robots, have increased in both sophistication and ease-of-use for a while now, and make it far easier for anyone to code themselves out of their own job than ever before.

The question is: should we?

First, let’s not deny that we all want to make our jobs easier. We already use technology to reduce our workloads in many acceptable ways—you wouldn’t forbid the use of pre-printed forms, photocopying, or setting email auto-responders on ethical grounds, for example.

Automating an entire job, however, raises issues of why companies hire people in the first place, and what value we can bring to workplaces of the future.

Automation: career suicide or winning move?

Every company differs on its automation policies. I’ve seen employees automate anything and everything they can, occasionally checking with their direct managers if doing so is okay. In others, doing so is a severely career-limiting move.

From what I’ve observed, the difference stems not so much from the automation technology itself, but from a combination of the organisation’s level of rigour regarding change-control and its definition of employee value.

For the employer, the ethics of job automation often comes down to an age-old question: time or results?

If you’re paying your employees for their time, then any form of automation—particularly the sort which lets your employee ditch the office or spend eight hours a day watching YouTube—is akin to rorting the business.

But if you hire people to achieve certain outcomes, rather than spend a fixed amount of time in certain places doing certain things, you’ll tend to view automation in a far more positive light.

On the employee side, the question is: if you’ve automated your entire job, should you tell your employer?

I believe you should, regardless of whether that employer pays you for time or results. If you’re in a results-oriented organisation, the sheer creativity and daring of automating yourself into redundancy will most likely push you into a more enriching role.

After all, you’ve demonstrated that you can not only identify opportunities to make things more efficient but also possess the technical and strategic skills to capitalise on those opportunities.

And if your employer cares more about how long you’re sitting in a chair? Well, you’ll probably get shown the exit… but truth be told, you’re better off leaving while you can. If a company rewards innovation and efficiency with a kick out the door, you might as well save them the effort.

The ethics of automation go both ways.

Just don’t build a Terminator

Job automation, however, can have darker consequences if it isn’t done properly. In the cases discussed above, the IT pros set up elaborate automation systems—one using software, the other using people—without first consulting anyone else in the business.

While commendable for their sheer lackadaisical genius, these systems could also put their organisations in danger.

One obvious risk relates to data security. If you’re using unsanctioned third-party apps to automate your work, you’re exposing organisational data to numerous cyberthreats.

It’s even worse if you’re outsourcing to another country—for example, the guy who sent all his work over to China was outed because system logs showed high volumes of suspicious overseas traffic connecting to the corporate servers.

If your manager or director knows you’re taking steps to automate parts of your job, however, they can work with you and the rest of your team to identify potential vulnerabilities and insulate the business in case things go wrong.

There’s another, more subtle risk: what if your automation system doesn’t play well with everyone else?

Automating yourself out of your job may be commendable, but doing so with JavaScript when the rest of your business runs on .NET certainly isn’t. Even if any automation system works for your job while you’re at the company, your choice of language, platform, or infrastructure could make things far harder for your successors to manage.

Clearing automation pet projects with the higher-ups will ensure that whatever system you build can last the distance, without causing the headaches it’s meant to relieve.

How can highly motivated (and characteristically lazy) employees get automation right?

Monitor your systems, and keep monitoring them. Doing so will not only give you intelligence on what areas you can efficiently automate but also help track the effectiveness and potential risks of your automation strategy.

Make automation a response to monitoring and you’ll be able to target the biggest inefficiencies in not only your job but those of your colleagues and even customers.

Organisational leaders, for their part, can make that process much easier by getting on board with methodologies like DevOps, which give their people greater speed and autonomy to make things more efficient.

Automating yourself out of a job, if done through the right channels and in a responsible way, could be the best move of your career.

Do it properly, and the hardest ethical question you’ll have to face will be logging into your YouTube account—and having to declare “I’m not a robot.”

Article by Leon Adato, Head Geek, SolarWinds

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