Obseletion through Programming

Working in tech, programmers are often brought in to apply automation to processes as a means to increase productivity. This ranges from automating the creation of manufactured goods or speedily compiling reports based on Excel spreadsheets. As a younger programmer, I found myself wondering what the person who used to do this work would do with their new found time. Simply put, is my hard work getting someone else fired? Within the context of knowledge workers, I think the answer is no.

I think the root of this question is in not having a firm understanding of what exactly other people do with their time. From the outside, you would think that programmers might stare at a computer, get angry, then produce code. It then stands to reason that if we removed 20% of the frustration, we should be be able to fire 20% of our programming force. It doesn't work this way, however.

The reason people aren't fired when there is a marginal speed increase is we are unlikely to automate the hard things. As an example, a person in health care administration spend a great deal of their time with things like filing for insurance reimbursement so the facility can be paid or managing the schedule of various physicians. These are both things who's efficiency could be greatly improved with the application of technology. With that said, there's a lot more that goes into the role of an administrator. They are the face of the business, welcoming new patients and helping with questions they may have about working with insurance providers. They also are one of the few places in the business that get to see many parts working together, from the physicians to the billing department. By freeing up the amount of time each administrator spends working with tools, like the medical records system, there is more time to be given to improving process efficiency or helping patients feel welcomed and satisfied. Even if we were able to increase the efficiency dramatically, what that would manifest into is a system that is able to manage a larger number of people with the same amount of resources. To put it more clearly, the natural result of a more efficient process is a company that has more customers and makes more money, not one with fewer employees.

I think young programmers have difficulty seeing these parallels. I think some of it stems from the hubris in thinking all problems are technical problems. A bigger piece to this, however, is sheer inexperience of interacting with people who do these jobs. Being ignorant to what it is that someone does all day allows you to marginalize the difficulties they have and the good work they could be doing. The next time you or someone you know asks "Well, are we going to code these people out of a job?", take it as a sign that you should dive in and learn more about what that person does all day.

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