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DATE 2018-10-01

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MESSAGE
DATE 2018-10-03
FROM Ruben Safir
SUBJECT Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] coding yourself out of a job
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Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] coding yourself out of a job
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https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/10/agents-of-automation=
/568795/

n 2016, an anonymous confession appeared on Reddit: =E2=80=9CFrom around six
years ago up until now, I have done nothing at work.=E2=80=9D As far as off=
ice
confessions go, that might seem pretty tepid. But this coder, posting as
FiletOFish1066, said he worked for a well-known tech company, and he
really meant nothing. He wrote that within eight months of arriving on
the quality assurance job, he had fully automated his entire workload.
=E2=80=9CI am not joking. For 40 hours each week, I go to work, play League=
of
Legends in my office, browse Reddit, and do whatever I feel like. In the
past six years, I have maybe done 50 hours of real work.=E2=80=9D When his
bosses realized that he=E2=80=99d worked less in half a decade than most Si=
licon
Valley programmers do in a week, they fired him.

The tale quickly went viral in tech corners of the web, ultimately
prompting its protagonist to delete not just the post, but his entire
account.

About a year later, someone calling himself or herself Etherable posted
a query to Workplace on Stack Exchange, one of the web=E2=80=99s most impor=
tant
forums for programmers: =E2=80=9CIs it unethical for me to not tell my empl=
oyer
I=E2=80=99ve automated my job?=E2=80=9D The conflicted coder described acce=
pting a
programming gig that had turned out to be =E2=80=9Cglorified data entry=E2=
=80=9D=E2=80=94and,
six months ago, writing scripts that put the entire job on autopilot.
After that, =E2=80=9Cwhat used to take the last guy like a month, now takes
maybe 10 minutes.=E2=80=9D The job was full-time, with benefits, and allowed
Etherable to work from home. The program produced near-perfect results;
for all management knew, their employee simply did flawless work.

The post proved unusually divisive, and comments flooded in. (It=E2=80=99s =
now
been viewed nearly half a million times.) Reactions split between those
who felt Etherable was cheating, or at least deceiving, the employer,
and those who thought the coder had simply found a clever way to perform
the job at hand. Etherable never responded to the ensuing discussion.
Perhaps spooked by the attention=E2=80=94media outlets around the world pic=
ked
up the story=E2=80=94the user vanished, leaving that sole contribution to an
increasingly crucial conversation about who gets to automate work, and
on what terms.

Call it self-automation, or auto-automation. At a moment when the
specter of mass automation haunts workers, rogue programmers demonstrate
how the threat can become a godsend when taken into coders=E2=80=99 hands, =
with
or without their employers=E2=80=99 knowledge. Since both FiletOFish1066 and
Etherable posted anonymously and promptly disappeared, neither were able
to be reached for comment. But their stories show that workplace
automation can come in many forms and be led by people other than
executives.

The promise of automation, touted by optimistic economists and sanguine
futurists, has been that yielding work to machines would eliminate the
drudgery of mindless, repetitive labor, freeing humans to fill our days
with leisure, creative pursuits, or more dynamic work. In 1930, John
Maynard Keynes famously speculated that =E2=80=9Cautomatic machinery and the
methods of mass production=E2=80=9D would help deliver a 15-hour workweek=
=E2=80=94and
even those hours would only be necessary to help men feel they had
something to do.

Nearly a century later, despite formidable advances in technology,
repetitive tasks persist. Automation continues apace; millions of jobs
once carried out by humans are accomplished by software and mechanized
factories, while Americans are working harder and increasingly longer
hours. The gains from automation have generally been enjoyed not by
those who operate the machines, but those who own them. According to the
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the share of
income going to wages in OECD nations has been decreasing since the
1970s, while the share being funneled into capital=E2=80=94into things like=
cash
reserves and machinery=E2=80=94has been increasing. It can seem that some o=
f the
only workers who have realized any scrap of that rusty old promise of
automation are the ones who=E2=80=99ve carved out the code to claim it for
themselves.

Programmers, of course, have been writing code that automates their work
for decades. Programming generally involves utilizing tools that add
automation at different levels, from code formatting to merging to
different codebases=E2=80=94most just don=E2=80=99t take it to the extreme =
of fully or
nearly fully automating their job. I chatted, via direct message on
Reddit and email, with around a dozen programmers who said they had.
These self-automators had tackled inventory management, report writing,
graphics rendering, database administration, and data entry of every
kind. One automated his wife=E2=80=99s entire workload, too. Most asked to
remain anonymous, to protect their jobs and reputations.

=E2=80=9CWhen I started, my job literally took me eight hours a day,=E2=80=
=9D an early
self-automator, who I=E2=80=99ll call Gary, told me. He worked for a large
corporate hotel chain that was beginning to computerize its workflow in
the =E2=80=9890s. Gary quickly recognized that he was spending a lot of his=
time
repeating the same tasks, so he started learning to code after-hours.
=E2=80=9COver the course of about three months, I built a piece of code in =
Lotus
[1-2-3, then a popular PC spreadsheet program] that not only automated
individual repetitive tasks, it effectively automated the entire job.=E2=80=
=9D
He didn=E2=80=99t tell his bosses exactly what he had done, and the quality=
of
his working life improved considerably.

=E2=80=9CIt felt weird to have free time during the day,=E2=80=9D he told m=
e. =E2=80=9CI spent
that time learning about the other systems in the hotel.=E2=80=9D He then m=
ade
himself useful, helping management with bottlenecks in those systems.
Auto-automation had erased menial toil, reduced his stress, and let him
pursue his actual interests. =E2=80=9CIn effect, I made my position into
something I love, which is troubleshooting,=E2=80=9D he said. Two weeks bef=
ore
he left, he handed his boss a diskette loaded with the program and
documentation on how it ran. His boss was upset that he was quitting,
Gary says=E2=80=94until he handed over the disk, showed him how the program
worked, and told him to call him if there was ever any problem. No call
ever came.

Todd Hilehoffer was compiling reports for a Pennsylvania insurance
company in 2000 when he realized his work could be done by a computer
program. =E2=80=9CI was very green at the time, with only a year of IT
experience,=E2=80=9D he told me in a direct message, when he started writing
code that could replace his job. =E2=80=9CIt took me about a year to automa=
te
it. I always thought my bosses would be impressed and would find more
work for me.=E2=80=9D They were, but they also didn=E2=80=99t have another =
job for him.
He passed his days playing chess online. =E2=80=9CI was really only complet=
ely
idle for about 6-9 months,=E2=80=9D Hilehoffer said, after which he receive=
d a
promotion.

In most fields, workers rarely have any formal input over whether their
job is automated, or how and when automation could be implemented.
Self-automators offer a glimpse of what it looks like when automation is
orchestrated not by top-down corporate fiat, but by the same workers who
stand to reap its benefits. Some embrace the extra leisure time, while
others use the spare hours to learn new skills and tackle new
programmatic challenges.

=E2=80=9CWhat I quite like about these stories is that it shows that automa=
tion
still has the potential to reduce the amount of boring work we have to
do,=E2=80=9D Jamie Woodcock, a sociologist of work at the Oxford Internet
Institute, told me. =E2=80=9CWhich was the promise of automation, which was=
that
we wouldn=E2=80=99t have to work 60-hour workweeks, and we could do more
interesting things like stay home with our kids.=E2=80=9D

Yet many self-automators are afraid of sharing their code outside the
cubicle. Even if a program impeccably performs their job, many feel that
automation for one=E2=80=99s own benefit is wrong. That human labor is
inherently virtuous=E2=80=94and that employees should always maximize
productivity for their employers=E2=80=94is more deeply coded into American=
work
culture than any automation script could be. And most employment
contracts stipulate that intellectual property developed on company time
belongs to the employer. So, any efficiency hack or automation gain an
employee might make is apt to be absorbed by the employer, the benefits
re-routed upstream.

One coder described keeping the fact that he=E2=80=99d fully automated his =
job
from his company because he feared it would claim the IP as its own and
refuse to compensate him. Another, who asked to be identified only as
Jordan, told me he once inadvertently automated an entire department
into redundancy. He now saves =E2=80=9Cseveral weeks=E2=80=9D worth of time=
a year with
automation scripts. Jordan says he and his colleagues keep a tight lid
on their automation techniques, to maintain control over how they=E2=80=99re
used: =E2=80=9CWe generally keep these tools to ourselves.=E2=80=9D

Another programmer went to great lengths to conceal the contours of his
fully automated $50,000 per year job from his boss. Management could
check in on his computer screen via the network, so he ran a loop of
prerecorded video to hide the fact that he wasn=E2=80=99t actually working.=
In
his advice-seeking post, Etherable wrote, =E2=80=9Cit doesn=E2=80=99t feel =
like I=E2=80=99m
doing the right thing.=E2=80=9D

=E2=80=9CI don=E2=80=99t understand why people would think it=E2=80=99s une=
thical,=E2=80=9D Woodcock
said. =E2=80=9CYou use various tools and forms of automation anyway; anyone=
who
works with a computer is automating work.=E2=80=9D He says if any of these
coders had sat in front of the computer, manually inputting the data day
after day, they=E2=80=99d never be reprimanded. But by demonstrating that
they=E2=80=99re capable of higher levels of efficiency, some may, perversel=
y,
feel like they=E2=80=99re shirking a duty to the companies that employ them.
This is perhaps why automating work can feel like cheating, and be
treated as such by corporate policy. On Amazon Mechanical Turk, the tech
company=E2=80=99s marketplace for microwork, automation is explicitly again=
st
its terms of service=E2=80=94and the gig workers like those on the platform=
, who
labor for cents per task, could stand to benefit from automation most of
all.

Some coders say that they=E2=80=99ve been fired outright for automating the=
ir
work. In 2011, a user posting as AcceptableLosses wrote, =E2=80=9CThey took=
what
I had developed, replaced me with an idiot that they showed how to work
it, and promptly fired me for =E2=80=98insubordination.=E2=80=99 I had take=
n a business
asset that was making them $30 grand a year profit and turned it into a
million dollar a year program for the company, and they fired me for it
to save ~30 grand a year on my salary. Job creators my ass.=E2=80=9D As suc=
h,
gainfully employed self-automators=E2=80=99 concerns are less likely rooted=
in
ethical questions, and more in not wanting to be fired or exploited by
an employer that, as Woodcock notes, =E2=80=9Cexpects not only all our time=
, but
anything we create.=E2=80=9D Wary self-automators, he speculates, =E2=80=9C=
don=E2=80=99t trust
our workplaces. The boss is going to say thank you, good work, now do it
again.=E2=80=9D

Few workers may have the desire to fully self-automate, but it appears a
growing number are interested in scripting the busy work. The
productivity web is littered with blog posts and how-to articles with
titles like How I Automated My Job with Node JS, and there are dozens of
podcasts about every conceivable kind of automation: small-business,
marketing, smartphone. It=E2=80=99s a burgeoning cottage industry.

=E2=80=9CI see it as a grassroots effort by office workers and others who u=
se a
computer as part of their job,=E2=80=9D Al Sweigart, the author of Automate=
the
Boring Stuff with Python, told me in an email. Even those with little or
no familiarity with programming are now seeking out his work, driven by
the ease of automating modern jobs. =E2=80=9CI get emails from readers who =
tell
me that they=E2=80=99ve freed up several hours of their (and their coworker=
s=E2=80=99)
days with a collection of small programs,=E2=80=9D Sweigart said.

As it stands, self-automation can be empowering. But as automation
techniques become better understood, they may simply become yet another
skill set management can expect employees to possess, or learn=E2=80=94pass=
ing
the gains to their organization, then making themselves useful in some
other way. =E2=80=9CEmployees will increasingly need to automate their own =
jobs
or get moved out,=E2=80=9D exhorts the Harvard Business Review. =E2=80=9CWo=
rldwide,
we=E2=80=99ll see many more top-down managerial mandates for bottom-up
automation initiatives.=E2=80=9D And the rich and their employee-built bots=
will
again swallow the gains.

Before that happens, anyone who works with code may want to consider the
benefits enjoyed by self-automation. They=E2=80=99re a sort of test case fo=
r how
automation could deliver a higher quality of life to the average worker,
albeit an imperfect one. =E2=80=9CThe problem is for automation to work, it
needs to be democratized,=E2=80=9D Woodcock told me. =E2=80=9CIt=E2=80=99s =
a step forward that
it=E2=80=99s not a corporate manager who=E2=80=99s delivering automation. I=
t=E2=80=99s still not
a democratic process.=E2=80=9D Self-automators are acting alone, deciding w=
hen
and how to replace their own job with code. Ideally, automation
decisions would happen collectively, with colleagues=E2=80=99 and peers=E2=
=80=99 input,
so, the gains could be evenly distributed.
Related Stories
A human fixes a human-looking robot

The Speedy Rise and Fall of Robot Babysitters
Teaching Kids to Code During the Summer=E2=80=94for $1,000 a Week
The Immigrants Fueling the Gig Economy

In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote that =E2=80=9Ca great deal of harm is being=
done
in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that
the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of
work.=E2=80=9D In 2018, that might mean self-automators reclaiming parts of
their work day; tomorrow, it could mean working to secure automated
gains for the masses. =E2=80=9CI worry quite a bit that there really isn=E2=
=80=99t
enough work to go around for everyone to work full-time,=E2=80=9D Todd
Hilehoffer said. =E2=80=9CWhy is earning money for stockholders more import=
ant
than employee quality of life?=E2=80=9D Gary, the early-=E2=80=9990s self-a=
utomator,
asked me. =E2=80=9CThe system shouldn't be more important than the individu=
als
who helped make that system relevant.=E2=80=9D

Self-automators show that coders are actually in a unique position to
negotiate with employers over which automation-derived gains=E2=80=94like
shorter workweeks and greater flexibility to pursue work that interests
them=E2=80=94should be kept by workers. There=E2=80=99s little evidence of =
any interest
in doing so, but theoretically, self-automators could organize, and
distribute automation techniques among middle- and working-class coders,
giving rising to an industry that could actually enjoy that 15-hour
workweek. It seems a rare opportunity=E2=80=94perhaps, with the advance of =
AI,
one of the last=E2=80=94to try to set the terms for a mode of automation th=
at
puts people first.
-- =

So many immigrant groups have swept through our town
that Brooklyn, like Atlantis, reaches mythological
proportions in the mind of the world - RI Safir 1998
http://www.mrbrklyn.com
DRM is THEFT - We are the STAKEHOLDERS - RI Safir 2002

http://www.nylxs.com - Leadership Development in Free Software
http://www.brooklyn-living.com

Being so tracked is for FARM ANIMALS and and extermination camps,
but incompatible with living as a free human being. -RI Safir 2013
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  1. 2018-10-02 Ruben Safir <ruben.safir-at-my.liu.edu> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] work
  2. 2018-10-02 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] work
  3. 2018-10-02 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] more google bounces
  4. 2018-10-02 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] more google bounces
  5. 2018-10-02 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] more google bounces
  6. 2018-10-02 Ruben Safir <ruben.safir-at-my.liu.edu> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] look at me
  7. 2018-10-03 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] coding yourself out of a job
  8. 2018-10-04 Ruben Safir <ruben.safir-at-my.liu.edu> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Fwd: Tuesday: Join us at "Classifying brain waves
  9. 2018-10-03 From: "Free Software Foundation" <info-at-fsf.org> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Free Software Supporter Issue 126, October 2018
  10. 2018-10-05 James E Keenan <jkeenan-at-pobox.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] November ny.pm tech meeting: joint meeting with
  11. 2018-10-06 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] PHP Vulnarbility
  12. 2018-10-08 Gabor Szabo <gabor-at-szabgab.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #376 - Hacktoberfest 2018
  13. 2018-10-08 James E Keenan <jkeenan-at-pobox.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] October ny.pm social meeting in northern Manhattan
  14. 2018-10-09 From: "APhA - American Pharmacists Association" <infocenter-at-aphanet.org> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] =?utf-8?q?pharmacist=2Ecom_FOCUS=3A_Broad_opioi?=
  15. 2018-10-13 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Open Access research
  16. 2018-10-14 Ruben Safir <ruben.safir-at-my.liu.edu> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] =?utf-8?q?AI_and_Society=3A_=22Bitcoin_at_10_Ye?=
  17. 2018-10-15 Gabor Szabo <gabor-at-szabgab.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #377 - Prepare for Advent!
  18. 2018-10-15 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] While you were busy worrying abolut Trump
  19. 2018-10-15 From: "Free Software Foundation" <info-at-fsf.org> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Introducing our new associate member forum!
  20. 2018-10-20 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Your Government at work....
  21. 2018-10-21 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Krazy Kat - and comics today
  22. 2018-10-21 Naomi for Congress <naomi-at-naomiforcongress.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] The Week With Naomi
  23. 2018-10-23 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] youtube educational funding (NYLXS)
  24. 2018-10-23 Ruben Safir <ruben.safir-at-my.liu.edu> Re: [Hangout - NYLXS] [artix-general] elongind and X
  25. 2018-10-15 Gabor Szabo <gabor-at-szabgab.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #377 - Prepare for Advent!
  26. 2018-10-23 From: "Rijksmuseum" <rijksstudio-at-e.rijksmuseum.nl> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] 80 Years' War in Rijksstudio
  27. 2018-10-23 From: "Free Software Foundation" <info-at-fsf.org> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] LibrePlanet 2019 Call for Sessions deadline
  28. 2018-10-18 From: "Free Software Foundation" <info-at-fsf.org> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Announcing keynote speakers for LibrePlanet --
  29. 2018-10-15 Gabor Szabo <gabor-at-szabgab.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #377 - Prepare for Advent!
  30. 2018-10-25 Naomi for Congress <naomi-at-naomiforcongress.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Join us on Tuesday!
  31. 2018-10-25 James Shafer <james.shafer-at-touro.edu> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Application Fee waiver: limited-time offer!
  32. 2018-10-27 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Good Morning America - how are you - Pittsburg
  33. 2018-10-27 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Policital Violence in NYC inching to the days of
  34. 2018-10-28 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Facebook Hell
  35. 2018-10-28 Ruben Safir <ruben.safir-at-my.liu.edu> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Fwd: New York Artificial Intelligence In
  36. 2018-10-29 Ruben Safir <ruben.safir-at-my.liu.edu> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] New York Artificial Intelligence In Healthcare
  37. 2018-10-30 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Chinese Hardware bans in the US
  38. 2018-10-30 Ruben Safir <ruben-at-mrbrklyn.com> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Google spying to be turned way up...

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