Way back in the Mesozoic Period of IT (about 1989) I had a boss who, while clenching a lit cigar between his teeth (yes, there was that back then), uttered these immortal words, “Your job is to automate yourself out of a job.”
That master of inspirational communications was on to something. He seemed to believe in motivating his people by obviating the eventual need for ever having to have us around. At first, it was confusing, I’ll admit that, but after a while it made sense. The future he painted was a blank slate but at least it was different than the discombobulated and patchwork state of how our systems and processes worked at that time, and about which we all complained loudly. He couldn’t tell us how that future would look when we arrived there, how the blank slate would get filled in, but he was good at describing why we needed to head there. He said it was “because the better we are at improving our efficiencies the faster the trains will run and the more cargo they’ll be able to carry.” (You probably guessed at this point that I worked at the headquarters of a railway) Looking back I think of him as the best first business leader a young person could ask for - talk about being able to draw a straight line from microscopic task to macroscopic impact.
I was in the first of my IT jobs that required me to do a bit of programming, of basic operational routines frankly, not the coding of any sort of complex algorithms that would go on later to topple nations and disrupt elections or anything. Although who knows what impact my stuff had on Y2K. Anyway, they were just simple sets of instructions to move data around, perform some mathematics, and trigger actions. In other words, to automate as much as possible some of the repetitive activities then performed by computer operations personnel.
He must’ve noticed that we had an ounce of intelligence and could follow the path of logic towards some end state in the distant future because he described our job as “automate this, then automate that, then automate your own processes (which I did), then, you know, we’ll figure something else out for you to do.” The strategy worked so well that, six years later, the company ended up consolidating organizations and moving our department and whatever responsibilities we had left 2000 miles away to Calgary. I was invited to go but I quit and went to another company.
Fast forward a few decades and I’m sitting in the audience last Tuesday at Oracle Openworld when our CEO, Mark Hurd, spoke to how Oracle wants to make blockchain disappear completely. I sat up a little straighter when he talked about that, as I flashed back to those prehistoric early years of my career. The circle was complete.
Those of us in the tech industry tend to forget that customers frankly don’t want to think about us and don’t want to interact with us. They do want to interact with our products but they don’t want to have anything to do with us. Ultimately, they simply want our products to deliver value to them. We’re dazzled by what our products can do and so are they but the difference is that they’d rather not care about how things work. Think those train conductors cared what some young buck was coding back in Toronto even though the efficiencies that were improved as a result meant that the conductors didn’t have to wait as long at a switch, his manifests arrived in a timelier manner, and that the applications that monitored the machinery that checked for buckling and cracking of rails that his engine ran over were tested? No, and we didn’t expect him to care. We wanted what we did to be invisible to the end user.
So when I hear leaders speak the truth about what shouldn’t really be controversial things, I’m heartened. Blockchain is all the rage, and I’m a big believer in its massive potential, but it makes sense that in the not too distant future we won’t be talking about it as much and that will be a good sign that it’s become an accepted and standardized aspect of our infrastructures. We shouldn’t actually care or expect our customers and end users to think consciously of blockchain or any other fancy technology we dream up that drives the information they see and interact with on their devices. Their experience needs to be with the application, not the plumbing.
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