Machine Jobs: career advice from a software developer

This Yesterday morning, I got out a little earlier than usual – combination of an early night before, and me wanting to beat the weather to work. It was so gloomy, the skies threatened to burst and pour down at any moment.

Coming up to a quiet traffic-lit intersection, it suddenly dawned upon me that once upon a time, a human being had to perform the very manual task of directing traffic at an intersection. Given that I was commuting to work, I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Expert Traffic Conductor waking up one fateful morning in 1868 to find that he wouldn’t be going to work that day because some machine with light bulbs had just replaced him.

That made me think of other such jobs were replaced such a long time ago, we forget that a human once had to devote his or her life to perform the task, day in, day out. One example is the elevator operator. A another one, the telephone operator.

More currently, I’m inclined to believe the reason a good portion of the human workforce still have their jobs isn’t because machines can’t yet perform them, but because the economics still swing in favour of hiring a human being over building and employing a machine equivalent. ‘Still’ being the operative word.

This is why it puzzles me when someone aspires to be more machine-like with their work.

Granted, I’m not unfamiliar with the fact that the more work one is able to perform per unit time generally translates into higher productivity which, in most cases, increases one’s income. Also granted, I’m acutely aware that every higher-up dreams of commanding a cohort of machine-like human beings; so for an underling, the contortion one’s humanity often presents itself as a wise career move, until you realize you’re just a stop-gap while the real machines creep within range of the corporate budget.

Still, the days of such “machineable” careers are severely numbered. You can trust me on that because bringing such a reality to past is implied in my job description as a software developer.

On the surface, it says “make better software to empower human beings”. What it really means is “make software so that we don’t need to pay that guy to sit there all day and click his mouse”. True story.

So if one is to derive any stone cold career advice out of this, it is to steer clear of the competition.

Instead of aspiring to be more machine-like, seek to be less. Spend time cultivating the things that are uniquely human – traits like creativity, beauty, vision, intelligence, compassion, inspiration. While this almost precludes you from scoring a mindless, well-paying, short-term job, at very least you won’t be out of one when a machine does better.

Apprenticeship and making it in digital media

The practice of apprenticeship has become something of a lost art in the digital media industry.

It seems every other digital media graduate wants to start their own thing, go the freelance route, and expect work to come knocking on their doors. The prospect of such a trajectory is not completely unfounded. From a cost perspective, it is relatively easy to set up shop, and start doing business. But the reality is, where barrier of entry is low, many other invisible forces come into play, leaving only the super talented, hardworking and lucky ones really making it right off the bat. For everyone else (including yours truly), It. Is (was). Tough.

To gain any headway into the industry, it almost requires putting oneself out there and asking to work for very little remuneration, in exchange for the opportunity for some experience. Sadly, as far as I’ve observed, there have been two ways this process has been bastardized.

First, opportunistic, conniving, cheap-ass individuals looking for free work under the pretense of “you could make it your portfolio piece”. For a plethora of reasons, you’ll rarely get a good portfolio piece out of such an engagement, and you’ll learn nothing that directly enriches the practice of your craft.

Second, agencies who s/apprentice/cheap labour/g without providing any real guidance and opportunity for growth.

There’s a lot to be said about how convoluted the industry is, as is every other industry, but when one is dealt cards, it is still up to one to play the best hands possible.

One of the better hands one could play, is to eat humble pie, seek out a well respected digital craftsman that one deeply admires, and offer to work for him or her in exchange for invaluable on-the-job experiences. Heck, offer money for the opportunity to work. I reckon it is a worthwhile investment that will pay for itself many times over.

Freelance or Permanent

This question popped up at least 3 times in the past 6 weeks. Conjuring up an answer for it forced me to think it through very carefully.

My last permanent position was with a non-profit company. When I left for freelancing and running my own business, it was somewhat around the same time the GFC hit most of the developing/developed world. Everyday there was news of jobs being cut, organisations “restructured”, etc.

Because of the calamity all around me, it made being a business owner (or more bluntly put, unemployed) less unpalatable. The argument was, “being permanent isn’t all the secure either”. The months that followed saw me build up a convincing case for being a freelancer over being an employee.

Over the years, things changed, the work that I busied myself with evolved from juggling multiple clients and projects, to more recently, devoting most of my week to one project, for one client – not unlike what a full-time employee might be accustomed to.

When I was most recently asked why I’d remain as a contractor as opposed to committing as a permanent, the best I could come up with was:

“It’s more a frame of mind”

I has been my way of keeping on my toes, affirming and preserving my identity as an independent professional, and not overexposing myself to the whims and fancies of a composite construct.

Work matters have been rolling along very swimmingly, I hope I don’t get swept up and disoriented, because it looks like it’s going to be one hell of a ride.