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.

Nothing is like software

It’s not the first time this has happened: I get into a conversation about the work that I do, concepts in designing and building software, methodologies that the industry live and die by, then it comes like a whistling blow dart flying through the air:

“<insert skill or discipline or knowledge> is just like software”

Examples: “Cooking is just like software”, “Art History is just like software”, “Driving is just like software”, “Organizing a party is just like software”.

Let me catch you right there before you think I’m some arrogant bit-pusher who claims the subject of his line of work is incomparably superior to any other discipline, quite the opposite: notice the phrase was,

“<thing> is just like software”

not

“Software is just like <thing>”

To put in more concrete form, it is the difference between

“A human is just like a mannequin”

and

“A mannequin is just like a human”

See, the point I am trying to make is that software is a lump of plasticine. It bears no form of its own, it bears no identity, or agenda or bias. Software is what people use when they try to teach silicon wafers how to add numbers up, or coordinate a taxi fleet, or try understand human behavior – the great codifier of all things. It is puzzling to me when someone claims to derive anything original from a craft whose ultimate goal is mimicry.

So please, if you are looking for something original, and the glint of software catches your eye, don’t stop there. Instead, look through software, and find the thing that inspired it.