Automators Paradox - Never Put Your Career Management on Autopilot

My mind does little cartwheels when it experiences the confluence of two independent streams of thought into a larger, faster flow.

I have been listening to Stanley McChrystal’s “Team of Teams” which bursts with interesting insights. Recently someone forwarded a blog post by a colleague, Forrest Brazeal, titled “Cloud Irregular: The Creeping IT Apocalypse”.

The combination seems to be both delicious and nutritious.

Team of Teams talks about the planet-wide, unquestioning dedication to Frederick Winslow Taylor style efficiency. In the late 1800s Taylor stunned the world by shattering competitors with the speed and efficiency of his mass production techniques. The book makes a strong case that this doctrine is deep seated in our global business culture and has made many inroads to our social culture.

However, it makes an equally strong case that to optimize anything to be efficient against ‘known risks’ or ‘known priorities’ is to simultaneously choose to move it away from being flexible and adaptable to yet unknown risks and priorities.

A one-line summary of the “pursuit of efficiency problem” in career management might be: > An activity that is being driven to higher and higher levels of efficiency in the hands of humans will soon be in the hands of machines.

At the least, it is ripe for the transition - and sometimes overripe (a polite way of saying “rotten’).

The everyday job of an automator is to make exactly that transition - move work from the hands of people to the hands of machines.

As automators the song of the efficiency Siren can lull us into allowing efficiency to epitomize our career development - not just our work product.

Forrest’s article is a pleasant admonishment to not get stuck in your IT career doing the same old, same old. His suggestions are to incorporate fresh views and entertain learning new things - these are excellent recommendations. I feel they also sound a theme from Team of Teams - that we embrace efficiency’s opposite in how we manage our career, even though our career heavily involves efficiency.

Let’s talk about a principle, that if adopted, can help you resolve the automator’s career management paradox.

Principle: When your daily work is to create efficiencies through automation, manage your career using efficiency’s murder victim, which is adaptability.

Some automators may take some exception to the juxtapositioning of automation and adaptability, citing self-healing automation behaviors as embodying adaptability. I would contend, that in our current implementations most of this adaptability is still against preconceived risks and that the risks to any computing system are relatively narrowly defined compared to open systems like the weather and your career.

Humans have orders of magnitude more adaptation capability than computer based automation - which makes it all the more tragic if we become efficiency machines.

This brings us to a quandary - how to perform two nearly opposite things at one time. One way to balance this ying and yang is to implement them at different levels.

You can add adaptability in many ways - here are a few:

  • Changing the scope or level where you apply adaptability:
    • move higher or lower - for example learning an orchestrating technology like Chef or Puppet when you’ve mostly been doing operating system level scripting or vice versa. If you’ve been doing a lot of traditional virtualization, add cloud skills.
    • broaden laterally - if you are strong in a specific OS or cloud platform, learn its counterpart in a competing platform.
  • Add work management skills:
    • If you are primarily an individual contributor, consider studying and practicing team leadership.
    • If you usually focus on coding (story ownership), consider also taking ownership for feedback and adoption for your code (solution/product management).
    • If you have worked only under traditional project management, seek understanding and opportunities to work under agile methodologies.
  • Add technical mentoring or advocating
    • If you focus on building up your expertise in a technology, consider creating a situation where you can build up others with that expertise.
    • If you haven’t been involved in community development, start participating in open source.
  • Cross-pollinate your mental models
    • Reading books about new approaches can help you come up with new ways of framing problems, which can give new solution insights.

All of the above are examples of adding adaptability to your skill set, while still keeping your core focus on automating (efficiency creation).

Unfortunately, you can’t set up a monitoring alert for when your career needs an adaptability boost - so a consistent trickle of adding adaptability is a great way to go.

And just like managing code, constantly adding adaptability to your career is much less stressful than periodic large-scale refactoring.

“Team of Teams” by Stanley McChrystal

“Cloud Irregular: The Creeping IT Apocalypse” by Forrest Brazeal

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