How to protect your job from automation

“The robots are stealing our jobs! 😱”

The threat of technology stealing our livelihoods is as old as the perceived menace of foreigners marrying our daughters. We are experiencing a wave of Automation, fuelled by the digital transformation.

PwC has a whole PDF devoted to this topic.

Yes, your CURRENT job is probably going away. What can you do about it?

This is not new.

When you think about important industries today, the textile industry is probably not the top of your mind.

In the 18th century, it was a big deal. It was so crucial for India that they have a weaver’s spinning wheel on their flag to this day.

“The hand-loom and the spinning-wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society,”

Karl Marx

That wheel in the middle is Ashoka Chakra, a spinning wheel

And then the industrial revolution introduced a Mechanical Loom and Sewing Machines. People in UK previously employed in the textile industry started burning textile mills and factories, fearing for their futures. This has given birth to the term Luddite.

Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines would replace their role in the industry. Over time, the term has come to mean one opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization, or new technologies in general.

„Luddite” on Wikipedia

Fast Forward: The No-Code tools

Journalism, as it existed in the 20th century, is indeed going away. Social Media companies like Facebook and the democratization of publishing brought forward by WordPress.com, Medium, Substack, etc is molding the entire publishing industry into a different form.

(That form, of course, has troubling aspects on the social front – mainly the outrage epidemic, clickbait, and fake news., but this is a topic for some other day).

Career journalists take some solace in pointing out that the programmers face the same threat. No-Code tools and AI are going to take over, and nobody will be safe from disruption.

No-Code tools like Zapier, Webflow, Airtable, and others are meant to reduce your friendly neighborhood programmer into a drag & drop interface.

This is a very poetic vision: The harbingers of the technology snake will themselves face the doom of being made irrelevant.

People losing jobs in numbers is of course, something to avoid. As the weavers in the 18th century and the Horse Manure transporters in the 19th century, overly specialized programmers MAY lose jobs to no-code.

What always struck me in discussions about „jobs going away” is that jobs are ultimately… work. And there is always more work.

This is not even a good thing! Productivity increases in the industrial revolution, and the information society gains could have introduced shorter workweeks and more leisure time.

Instead, they produced more bureaucracy and gadgets. Humanity will always find more work, to a fault.

How can YOU thrive?

The fact that there will always be work to be done does little for your quality of life, does it?

If you have just been disrupted by the advent of new technology, you want to have food on the table, ideally, keep your living standards or improve them. You want a good job.

Generalist skills and Narrow focus is Antifragile.

„Jack of All Trades, master of none” is a shaming scheme developed by factory owners to keep their workers dependant.

An often recommended career trick is to combine two broader disciplines. Most skills can be synergistically combined to create more value. For example, mix Marketing with Computer Science or Sales with basically anything to unlock enormous potential. Warren Buffet recommends combining Public Speaking with any skill under the sun. Writing is another high-leverage skill (see David Perrell or Patrick Collison – Stripe CEO).

A journalist might apply his writing workshop to a new, niche field. Whatever future the new managing technology will bring, analysis, commentary, and explanation will always be needed. It may not look like old-school journalism, but the function will be the same.

Despite being somewhat knowledgeable about WordPress and payments systems, I also paint my job in very broad strokes. I am an Engineer that combines tools to solve problems. If these tools are no-code tools instead of programming languages – that only makes my job easier. Thinking in terms of systems interacting with each other and how they handle data is what Computer Science is about. Not coding in any specific language. Patrick McKenzie explains it beautifully in an essay ‘don’t call yourself a programmer’.

The ultimate power move is to apply this broad identity to a narrow field – something very niche and overlooked, where you can:

  1. Quickly become an expert, by virtue of no competition
  2. Be able to quickly move into and profit from that niche using your broader skill set.

Ben Thompson from Stratechery.com has explored it from a journalist angle in his essay „Never Ending Niches”:

What is important to note, though, is that while quality is relatively binary, the number of ways to be focused — that is, the number of niches in the world — are effectively infinite; success, in other words, is about delivering superior quality in your niche — the former is defined by the latter.

There will always be more work and more niches. The same disruptive force that disrupts the establishment also creates new job titles.

The trick is to be flexible enough to be able to move into those niches once they appear.

I wanna be a programmer! A journey.

Ordinary World

Chuck was few years into his career. He was sitting at a desk for most of the day, doing menial and repeatable tasks, filling out Excel spreadsheets and agonizing over “ASAP” PowerPoint presentations that nobody really paid attention to during meetings that were absolutely unnecessary.

But the absolute majority of his day was consumed by Facebook. Be it boredom or burnout, he compulsively checked his stream. And to add salt to the injury, pretty often he would stumble into a story how those fresh-out-of-college programmer-people got an obscene salary, office restaurant, laundry, assistant or something as ridiculous as an office with michelin star-train chefs for YOUR DOG. No, seriously.

Call to adventure

Chuck said to himself: I wanna be a programmer! I have plenty of friends in the industry and I will ask them what to do.

Refusal of the Call

Lets start with education. I don’t have any formal engineering education! These people had to learn this in school, didn’t they? Maybe it’s not such a great plan, I don’t want to spend another 3 years studying something, do I?

Supernatural Aid

After a chat with one of his friends, he learned that IT is one of those weird professional industries, where formal education is not that important. In many other industries, you show your diploma to convince prospective employer that indeed, you know what you are doing. But in IT, diploma is close to obsolete because the education has trouble keeping with technological progress.

You don’t need formal engineering education

Furthermore, programmers are in high demand. In Silicon Valley, companies are poaching employees from each other because the demand highly outgrew “tech talent” there.

Should I go for code bootcamp?

Bootcamp is an intensive few-weeks coding course. It worked for some of Chuck’s friends, but he knew that it would be a bad choice for him. He was always a self-learner and he despised the fact that in a group setting you need to go as slow as a dumbest person in the class or sometimes he needed more time but the group needed to push forward.

One advantage of coding bootcamp is discipline and accountability. The are in charge and they motivate and keep the score. In Poland, Coderslab appealed to him and he wasn’t girly enough for girlsjs, but he wanted to learn on his own terms.

Crossing the Treshold

SONY DSC

A friend recommended Code.org to Chuck. It was created by Facebook and few other companies as an effort to teach kids how to code. Chuck played with few lessons and decided he felt confident enough to try something more serious.

The road of trials

What programming language should I learn?

When he started asking this seemingly innocent question, clearly he had no idea what he was getting into. He didn’t mean to question anybody’s religious beliefs, but every time he brought the subject up, he got a different, strong opinion.

Chuck decided to listen to Artur’s advice and learn JavaScript. Following arguments convinced him:

  • JavaScript is one of the few languages that can be used in many layers of application. That meant that he would be able to switch positions without acquiring new language,
  • With React Native and other approaches it is now possible to also write mobile apps in JavaScript. If he decided to, he could write his own apps!,
  • JavaScript ecosystem is still growing rapidly. The demand will only grow.

So he started taking advantage of the amazing free material available on the web:

He also heard good things about a comprehensive free “How to be a programmer” guide.

The inmost cave

Contribute! Show off!

Chuck decided to call one of his friends who was responsible for hiring in a huge company.

  • “Listen”, asked Chuck, “If you are not looking at diplomas, how DO you know who to hire?”
  • In many companies it boils down to something called “technical interview”. Honestly, it’s exam-like situation, where we ask technical questions, ask you to solve some problems and generally grade you
  • Is this a reliable process?
  • No, it’s very sloppy and a bit random.
  • Ok, but how can I prepare?
  • I recommend Cracking Code Interview. These are hard and this books is really all you need to get into Google or Microsoft. But in many companies it’s MUCH easier. Usually it’s a few random questions related to specific programming language.
  • Is there something else you would recommend?
  • Open Source projects! It’s an easy way to get experience and make your CV stand out.
  • How do i start with that?
  • Start with Contributing to GitHub. There are plenty of projects that would appreciate help. You will learn A LOT! Pro tip: Best way is to try to set up the project and start by fixing the “README” files. If you had to overcome some obstacle – fix the readme’s before the code. The maintainers of the project will appreciate your help and it will count as contribution. Also check out this guide on starting your Open Source contributions
  • Thanks for the chat!

The supreme ordeal

How do I get motivation?

At this point Chuck felt a bit overwhelmed by possibilities and work to be done. Fortunately, one of his friends had a masters degree in psychology, so he asked him how to find a drive and strength to push forward.

His friend responded:

I have learned more about self-motivation from “Awaken the giant within” by Tony Robbins than during 5 years of psychology.

The book was a splendid recommendation. Chuck never felt so driven to get this done!

Reward

How much will I earn? How to find a job?

Chuck started asking himself what he should learn in order to get a job. What are the requirements? He heard it’s much better to just look for the offer in specific programming language he knew, so he can focus on improving his skills before he starts learning more.

The Road Back

I want to work remotely, like this Artur person!

What is this remote work? How come Artur is writing posts from all over the globe? Chuck managed to call Artur and ask how to get remote work

“Chuck, listen: there are some fully-distributed companies, but they are only functioning because people there are self-driven. It’s hard to control people when they are not in the office, so we need to be very careful in hiring. Almost always they require prior experience and I highly recommend first starting in some other company”

Resurrection

What’s next?

At the beginning of his programming career, Chuck decided to go for big / medium company. He heard, that he definitely should not join “a cool startup of his friend”. It could be bad for him and the startup.

  • Big company has processes and resources to teach more basics
  • His shortcomings will have little impact on the final result
  • There will be more “newbies”, so he wont feel like the only one without 10+ years of experience
  • There will be plenty patterns / good practices to absorb
  • In a big company it’s much easier to know what he doesn’t know

Chuck got a cool job at Samsung. He decided that he will learn constantly in his new job and after 2 years of corporate experience, he will try to step up the corporate ladder or get a better position somewhere else. Changing job in tech every ~3 years is considered normal.

Be smart, be like Chuck. Be a programmer. It’s awesome.

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