Programmers do their own jobs

Original author: Brian Merchant
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When workers manage to automate their duties, who should reap the benefits?

In 2016, an anonymous confession appeared on Reddit : “For about six years now, I haven’t done anything at work.” It seems to be nothing special when it comes to office work. But this programmer, hiding under the nickname FiletOFish1066, said that he worked for a well-known tech company, and he really didn’t do anything at all. He wrote that after working for eight months in the quality assurance department , he was able to fully automate all his work. "I am not kidding. 40 hours a week I go to work, play League of Legends, read Reddit, do what I want. Over the past six years I have worked 50 hours. " When his bosses realized that in half a decade he had worked less than most programmers in Silicon Valley for a week, they fired him.

This story quickly spread to the technological corners of the web, because of which her hero eventually had to remove the post itself, and even the account.

About a year later, a person under the name Etherable asked a question in the “Workplace” section of the Stack Exchange website, one of the most influential forums for programmers: “Is it ethical what I hide from an employer that I fully automated my work?” The doubting coder described , as agreed to work, which as a result was reduced to a simple data entry. Six months ago, he finished writing scripts that put his duties on autopilot. After that, “what the previous employee took a month to do, takes me about 10 minutes.” Work was a full day, with a social package, and allowed Etherable to work from home. The program gave almost perfect results; managers were confident that the employee perfectly copes with the work.

This post has shared the opinions of users, and generated a lot of comments. Today, her views have reached the level of half a million. Opinions were divided into two camps: some believed that Etherable was behaving dishonestly, deceiving the employer, others said that the coder had just come up with a clever way to do his job. Etherable never responded to this dispute. Perhaps he was frightened by such attention - the media around the world replicated this story - and he disappeared, leaving only this contribution to the increasingly important dispute, who was supposed to automate the work and under what conditions.

Call it self-automation, or auto-automation. At a time when the specter of mass automation scares workers, sly programmers show how this threat in the hands of an encoder can turn into a blessing, with or without the knowledge of the employer. Because FiletOFish1066 and Etherable posted anonymously and quickly disappeared posts, they cannot be accessed for comment. But their stories show how workplace automation can take many forms and be led by different people, and not just by company directors.

The promises of automation, advertised by optimistic economists and positively minded futurologists, are that by giving the machines work, a person can get rid of mindless and repetitive work, and freely fill their days with rest, creative activities or more dynamic work. In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes reasoned that “automatic machines and mass production methods” would help shorten the work week to 15 hours — and even such a length would be needed only for people to feel that they have some kind of occupation.

After nearly a hundred years, despite significant advances in technology, work consisting of repetitive actions still exists. Automation is evolving; Millions of jobs, once occupied by people, have now disappeared thanks to software and mechanized production, while Americans are working harder and harder in the meantime . The benefits of automation are generally enjoyed not by machine operators, but by their owners. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development , the share of wage income in OECD countries has been falling steadily since the 1970s, and free money has gone to capital- in cash reserves and production. It may seem that the only workers who took advantage of the meager advantages of this old rusty promise were those who managed to write code that helps to get these benefits.

Programmers, of course, for decades engaged in what they write code that automates their work. In programming, tools are usually used that add automation at various levels, from code formatting to merging codes with databases - most people simply do not bring their work to complete or almost complete automation. I talked with a dozen programmers who said that they are engaged in automation at work. They automated inventory, report writing, graphing, database administration, data entry of all kinds. One of them managed to automate the work of his spouse. Most wished to remain anonymous in order to protect their work and reputation.

“When I started work, she took me eight hours a day,” one of the early automatics, who I’ll call Harry, told me. He worked for a large hotel chain, which began to computerize its work in the 90s. Harry quickly realized that he spent a lot of time repeating the same tasks, so in his spare time he began to study programming. "In about three months, I wrote a program for Lotus that automated not only individual repetitive tasks, but all the work in principle." He did not tell the bosses what he did, and the quality of his working life has improved significantly.

“It was very strange to have free time during the day,” he told me. “I spent it on exploring other hotel systems.” He then began to help managers eliminate bottlenecks in these systems. Self-automation removed psychological stress, reduced stress levels, allowed him to do something really interesting. “Essentially, I turned my work into a favorite activity — getting rid of flaws,” he said. Two weeks before his dismissal, he handed the boss a diskette with the program and launch documentation. His boss was upset at first when he found out about leaving, says Harry. But then Harry gave him the disk, showed how the program works, and said to call him in case of problems. Nobody called.

Todd Heilhoffer was writing reports at the Pennsylvania Insurance Company in 2000, when he suddenly realized that a computer program could do his work. “I was a green newcomer then, I had only a year of experience in IT,” he told me. And then he began to write a program that could replace his work. “It took me about a year to automate. I thought it would impress my bosses and they would find something to do. ” They were impressed, but they had no other job for him. He spent his days playing online chess. “I actually did nothing about 6-9 months,” said Heilhoffer, and then he was promoted.

In most areas, workers have no power over automating their work, or when and how this automation can be implemented. Self-automation devices provide an opportunity to take a look at what happens when automation is performed not by order from above, but at the initiative of the same workers who will reap its fruits. Some happily relate to the time for rest, others use free hours to learn new skills and conquer new programming peaks.

“I like these stories in that they show that automation still has the potential to reduce the amount of boring work that we have to do,” Jamie Woodcock, a sociology expert at the Oxford Internet Institute , told me. “It was precisely this that automation promised us that we would not have to work 60 hours a week, that we would be able to do something more interesting, for example, to spend time at home with the children.”

At the same time, many self-automatics are afraid to release their code outside the workplace. Even if the program perfectly copes with the work, many believe that it is wrong to use it for personal use. The virtues of human labor and the duty of workers to maximize productivity for employers are rooted in American working culture deeper than any automation script. Also, most work contracts stipulate that the intellectual property developed while working for the company belongs to the employer. Therefore, any efficiency hack or automation advantage gained by an employee should ultimately be in favor of the employer — all benefits should be redirected to the top.

One coder described what hides the automation of his workfrom the employer, as he fears that she will request intellectual rights to her and refuse to pay him compensation. Another, who asked to call him Jordan, told me that once he accidentally automated an entire department. Now, with the help of automation scripts, it “saves several weeks every year”. Jordan says that they and colleagues firmly keep the secret of their automation techniques to control their use: "In general, we keep these tools with us."

Another programmer went very far to hide the full automationhis work, paid for $ 50,000 per year, from the boss. His superiors can check the screen of his work computer over the network, so he runs a pre-recorded video of the work process on it to hide that in fact it is not working. Etherable in his query not the forum wrote: "I do not think that I am doing the right thing."

“I don’t understand why people can decide that this is unethical,” said Woodcock. - You already use various tools and types of automation; any person working with a computer automates their work. ” He says that if these programmers had to manually enter all the necessary data day after day, no one would scold them. But, having demonstrated their abilities to reach a new level of efficiency, for some reason, some of them are beginning to think that they are shirking responsibility from employers. Perhaps that is why work automation seems to be a kind of fraud, and so it is treated in companies. At the Amazon Mechanical Turk site, where micro-work orders are placed, automation is explicitly prohibited in terms of use - despite the fact that workers from this platform who earn a few cents for completing tasks,

Some coders say they were simply fired for automating their work. In 2011, the user under the nickname AcceptableLosses wrote: “They took my development, replaced me with an idiot, showed him how to work with her, and they fired me for“ failure to follow the chain of command. ” I took a business asset that earned them $ 30,000 a year, turned it into a program that earned a million a year, and they fired me to save $ 30,000 a year on my salary. The creators of jobs, yeah, schazz. " The concerns of profitably established self-automatics are not connected with ethics, but because they would not be fired, or their employers, who, according to Woodcock, “want to own not only all of our time, but everything that we create,” did not exploit. He believes that concerned self-automators “do not trust jobs. Boss will say - thank you

Few workers want to fully automate their work, but an increasing number of them want to automate complex tasks. Productivity sites are inundated with articles like " how I automated my work with node.js ", and dozens of podcasts talk about all kinds of automation: for small businesses, marketing, working with a smartphone. This is the heyday of the handicraft industry.

“All these attempts are undertaken by ordinary employees, and everyone who uses a computer in their work,” wrote Al-Swaygart, the author of the book “ Automating boring things with Python“Even people who are practically not familiar with programming try to follow his advice, being impressed by the ease of automating modern work.“ I get letters from readers who managed to free up several hours a day using a set of small programs, ”said Sveigart.

In the current state, self-automation opens up new possibilities, but the clearer the automation techniques become, the faster they simply turn into another set of skills that managers will expect to learn or possess from their employees - as a result, all the benefits will go to companies, and workers will benefit in some other way. “Employees will need to automate their work more or less, or retire,” they writein the Harvard Business Review. “Worldwide, there has been an increase in the number of management requirements for employees to take bottom-up automation initiatives.” And all the benefits will again get rich with their robots, created by employees.

But up to this point, everyone who works with the code may consider the advantages of self-automation. They provide a test case for how automation can improve the quality of life of an average worker, albeit imperfect. “The problem of work automation is that it needs to be democratized,” Woodcock told me. - This is a step towards the fact that now it is not the corporation manager who is engaged in automation. Therefore, this process is not yet fully democratic. ” Self-automation engineers work alone, decide when and how to replace their work with code. Ideally, automation decisions should be made collectively, taking into account the views of colleagues, so that all benefits are distributed evenly.

In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrotethat "in the modern world, many problems stem from belief in the beneficence of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in organizing the reduction of work." In 2018, this may mean that self-automatics partially take back their working hours. Tomorrow, this may mean working to provide the masses with the benefits of automation. “I’m seriously worried about the fact that everyone just doesn’t have enough work to do it all day,” said Todd Heilhoffer. “Why is earning money for shareholders to an employee more important than the quality of his life?” Asked Harry, a self-automatic from the 90s. "The system should not be more important than the individuals who helped make it meaningful."

Automakers demonstrate that coders are in a unique position to bargain with employers about the benefits of automation — shortening work weeks, flexible opportunities for spending time on interesting activities for employees — should remain with the workers. It seems that few people strive for this, but theoretically, self-automation could organize and distribute automation technologies among middle and lower level coders, giving rise to an industry in which one could really enjoy 15-hour working weeks. Attempting to negotiate automation that puts people first — perhaps with the advances of modern AI — seems like a rare opportunity.

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