What it's like to be personally responsible for automating away someone's high-paid, high-skill job

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/06/27/luxury-communism-precursor.html


Part of my work sometimes necessitates automating a person out of a job. When this happens I make a point of having this kind of frank and open and on-going conversation with them.

Without costing anything, it serves the dual purpose of transferring what can be decades’ worth of valuable and non-obvious knowledge and showing due respect to the individuals and their past contributions to the enterprise. I also take it as an opportunity to figure out other possible positions in the organisation where the person can best continue to add value while feeling a similar sense of purpose.

It doesn’t always go smoothly or work out, but if one has some basic human decency and an ability to look beyond the bottom line there’s never a reason not to show genuine respect and empathy to someone who’s earned them.

What impresses me most about this story is that Winick grasped all this at a young age where it took me at least a decade to see how important it is. In contrast, the big consulting firms like McKinsey seem to deliberately foster the opposite attitude amongst the fresh B-school graduates they hire – the best they can do is offer a scripted simulacrum of empathy and respect as they serve their slow AI clients by terminating the now-defunct “human resources.”


My boss is currently planning automation to make a big percentage of my work day be handled by a customer facing portal and some other systems. It’ll actually be a godsend as it’ll allow my department to focus more fostering closer relationships with customers and make sure that construction schedules are accurate. Right now it’s highly inaccurate and we spend a lot of time on documentation and paperwork.

I do feel for people whose job is genuinely threatened by automation rather than enhanced.


This seems like a big difference between automation practices in the US versus, say, Germany (where, from what I’ve read, the workers aren’t simply consulted about how to automate their jobs away, but initiate and participate in processes that increase their own productivity using automation).


I have done this myself long ago in the past, though quite unwittingly.

I worked for a fulfillment center which had a terrible printing problem at its kitting (aka boxing) department. For every order they fulfilled, a label was printed that indicated which items were meant to go into which boxes so the person doing the packaging would know how to assemble the order.

Problem was, the code that printed the labels sent Microsoft Word documents to the Zebra label printers in use and it worked as terribly as you’d expect. The labels took half a minute to print, they’d often slip their margins so that the label would get printed across a perforation, and because this went so slowly, the print spool would overload and often crash taking out dozens of queued up print jobs with it.

It was basically a full time job correcting all the problems this lousy code caused, so between 2 kitting stations and 2 full time shifts, that was 4 jobs.

Well I had been tasked to find a solution, and it seemed simple enough: Use the Zebra printers’ native ZPL code to create the labels instead. Suddenly all the problems disappeared. The printers spewed out the labels in less than a second, they never slipped their margins, and no print spooling was necessary.

Everyone was pleased until 2 days later when I found out those 4 full timers in kitting were let go because they weren’t needed anymore. Then I was a bit horrified about what I had done. It didn’t even occur to me that this was a possible outcome, young and naive as I was.

To make a long story short, I didn’t stay there much longer myself. But I believe that was the first and hopefully the last time someone lost their job because of one of my projects.


I don’t knowingly do this anymore. But it still sometimes happens. :frowning:

The point of automation, in a healthy society, is to be able to do more work, accomplish more great feats of labor, to lift human culture higher by multiplying the effects of the effort of human beings. You free up a coal miner so you can build a mighty hydropower dam, you free up a mining engineer so he can figure out how to preserve the fish when you build the dam, then you can shut down the coal mine entirely because you have abundant power, and just keep moving onwards and upwards!

The point of automation in our current dystopian societies is to remove salary and benefit costs from the boardroom castes, and spread those costs over a much larger population of taxpayers by government force. This is unsustainable, because eventually all the money is held by the boardroom castes and there’s nobody to tax, and then the military revolts.


I am kind of glad that I have taken up skills that require a lot of fine hand work that cannot hopefully be automated.

I am really surprised she was able to automate mold making in some way because that is very skilled work that requires a lot of specialized knowledge. There’s a reason that when positions like that pop-up on indeed they often go unfilled for years. The people that do stuff like that are dying off.

I will be starting a new job working in Tool & Die Machining in a couple weeks and I hope no one finds a way to automate my job. I doubt highly that somebody is going to find a way to 3D print perfectly geometrically accurate 3 ft Square tool steel dies for forging titanium… but you never know.

Within the next 10 years my degree in Japanese may become useless with good Universal translators extending from Google, but my ultimate fall back is definitely not automatable- if all else fails I can fall back on mechanical watch making full-time.

I’m really glad that this woman had the gumption to publish this and even more so to get in touch with the guy and really try to understand where he was coming from it shows a level of humanity that most people are lacking.


When she presented her finished work, her boss invited Gary to the presentation to witness his own doom.



This was interesting to read, but it makes me wonder about those who are at a distance from the consequences of their actions. They don’t have the ability to get this type of closure. One example is the firms that were innovators or “disruptors” in online travel - which is why a relative who used to be a travel agent left that field.

I once worked for an ad publishing software company that caused competitors with manual processes to lose business or fail completely. The developers handling the automation had no contact with them. It reminds me of the ST:TNG episode “The Ensigns of Command” when Data tells a group of colonists they are no match for the aliens on the way by saying, “They can obliterate you from orbit. You will die - never having seen the faces of your killers.”


Had one of those come into a client of ours and recommend firing the highest paid engineers to improve profitability. If they actually followed his advice they’d have closed their doors within a year. Fortunately saner heads prevailed and he was the one fired.


One would hope the improved efficiency in queueing up the work would mean an increase in staff to keep up! (Yeah, I know, it doesn’t always work out that way.)

1 Like

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, automate anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or automated or processed, or buy anything automated or sold or processed, or automate anything processed or sold or bought, or process anything sold, bought, automated or processed, or repair anything automated, sold, bought, or processed.


Yeah, good luck with that.

I understand and can sympathize with your feeling but the modern world I guarantee you you have something that someone created dies for to mass-produce the object. Your car your truck your computer even the most benign thing unless you hand carved your utensils out of wood I guarantee there is something more than a few things around you that were only possible because of people like me, people who make stuff for mass production or in my case one off.

I can imagine a future something along the lines of Star Trek where production doesn’t have to be a guilt enterprise that pollutes the land or the air.

But for the time being unless you want to live in a mud house with bamboo plumbing and other such imagery while it is possible you probably aren’t doing that.

Honestly myself I would like to have a machine shop that is only powered by water wheel and leather belts with no electricity. So I get where you’re coming from.


It’s always the same story with big management consulting firms:

Clients (est. 1963): So what are your conclusions?

McKinsey McKidsey (MBA 2017): Well, right off the bat we need to get this loser off the headcount. He costs you a huge amount every year, for decades now. And he’s old, so what does he know about synergetic creative disruption? You could get a couple of engineering grads in here to-morrow to do his job at half the price, decreasing your costs and setting you up in a lucrative new big data machine-learning blockchain product line.

Clients [looking at each-other in a mix of terror and confusion]: But we manufacture propane gas grills and accessories. And are you sure? Bob? Our director of product design Bob?

McKidsey: Yes, that’s him. Right here on this sheet.

Clients: Bob is all that’s holding together this collection of chewing gum and baling wire we hired your firm to fix. Did you talk to Bob?

McKidsey: No, but I didn’t need to. I saw his salary on the headcount sheet, and someone pointed him out to me in the hall once. So old, and his suit and haircut are less expensive than mine. He was drinking coffee from the urn. Who needs that dead weight?

Clients: But McKinsey promised us a … [getting out the contract] … “full and thorough discovery process prior to any recommendations.”

McKidsey: And that’s what you got from me. Fresh eyes on a … hehe … old problem. Plus my extensive finance experience from Harvard Business School. Did I mention I went to Harvard?

Clients: Yes, several times, but…

McKidsey: I promise you, if you take my advice you’re gold. The next fiscal quarter will see an improvement over the last, and that’s all that matters.

Clients: Not really…look…

McKidsey: Hey, it’s cool. You don’t want to take my advice, you’re not contractually obligated to.

Clients: We won’t. Your time here is done. Can we assume that McKinsey will waive all the tens of thousands of dollars in fees for this useless advice.

McKidsey: Well, about those contractual obligations…



That doesn’t sound scripted or anything. Say, are you a robot?

1 Like

Here at my workplace there’s been a string of people retiring that have been with the company for over 30 years and within the next 3-5 years we will have many more. In my line of work the people that have been here the longest have an immense pool of knowledge, contacts, and relationships that you literally cannot study or easily teach. We’ve done quite a bit to hire and train new people but frankly i’m afraid that management is severely underestimating the wealth of knowledge that we’ll be losing. It’s entirely possible that i’ll end up looking for a new job in about 3-5 years depending on how things develop here but for now i’m being hopeful as i enjoy working for my company.


3-5 years is enough time to put juniors directly under the soon-to-be-retired to learn on the job and get mentored and get introductions. That won’t capture everything, but eventually people retire so something’s better than nothing. I hope you come through it OK and get to stay at your company.


It’s a quote