Be the Automator

In my first job as a professional software developer, the “lead developer” (there were only two of us!) introduced me to a product called CodeSmith.

My reaction to discovering this thing called a “code generator” was disgust. “But…but…I’m the code generator!” I thought. I was incredulous that a professional software developer was promoting a tool that automatically wrote code—the exact thing our employer was paying us to do! It was quite a shock to a young programmer just starting his career. Luckily, code generators were more of a curiosity to him, and we quickly forgot about it. Phew!

Fast-forward a decade plus, and there is nothing I would rather have than a tool that would automatically write all my code for me. Code sucks!

Dan the Automator

In a sort of ironic twist, I have come to feel strongly that the foremost responsibility of a professional is to make their own job go away. I love working in the field of software engineering, but I also wish we could teach computers how to do it. It can be damn tedious at times.

There has been a lot of talk in the last few years about the future of “jobs” in general. People are facing the idea that jobs lost in the Great Recession may never be coming back. As companies invest more and more into automation, there are entire categories of human labor that might simply disappear in the not-too-distant future.

We folks who make our living in the software industry are at the forefront of automation. I like to joke sometimes that my job is to put people out of work. A dark idea, but it’s essentially true.

Automation is simply inevitable—the benefit of having a machine do a human’s job cheaper, more consistently, with no sick time, and no complaining ever, is too great.

And yet, while being at the forefront of automating other people’s jobs, there are so many aspects of our own work that can be automated. For example, I cringe when I see “QA people” following written instructions while clicking on this button, and then that link, and then typing in foo, and then clicking this other button, and then confirming that this other thing says bar. When the viability of your job depends on your boss never hearing about Selenium, you’re in a bad way. I like to call this “Job Security by Obscurity”. The same goes for developers spending months writing and maintaining their own artisanal ORMs—if Active Record can do your job better than you can, just admit it and move on.

So my career advice to a younger me is this: Be the automator.

Don’t let someone else discover how much of your job can be automated. Find these opportunities yourself and own them. If someone is going to automate your work, it’s going to be you dammit! Teach the stupid computer how to do it, and then apply your working hours to stuff that humans are still way better at.

In the fullness of time, the last remaining “job” is that of the Automator. Be the Automator until there’s nothing left to automate.


Unknown said...

Glad you finally came around to my way of thinking! :-) CodeSmith was created out of my desire to automate the tedium that comes with our job. Especially in the consulting field where we were building similar applications over and over and over.