I recently read an article titled: “What will the World of Work Look Like in 2035?” I had to laugh. Not because I’m going to retire later this year, but because of the arrogance in thinking that we can look ahead 16 years, imagine all the changes, and predict that future (even if they do hedge their bets across a lot of options).
I have spent the past 42 years in the world of work described by the term “Information Management.” That is, described today by that term. 42 years ago, I was hired as a Programmer Analyst into a Systems Development group. I switched jobs fairly quickly to become a Methods Analyst, and then a Project Manager and a slew of other titles. Throughout my career, I worked with and/or around computers and the systems that run on those computers. The one thing all of these jobs had in common is that my education didn’t specifically prepare me for them.
Let me offer three facts for your consideration:
1) For the past (almost) 25 years, my job has relied upon and interacted with the Internet
2) I graduated from college in 1977
3) ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, was roughly 8-years-old in 1977 and was completely characterized by the drawing below:
The drawing isn’t important, but the fact that you could actually draw ARPANET on a piece of paper is worth pondering. I doubt very much if anyone in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Business even knew about ARPANET. People across the street at Carnegie Mellon University probably did, but not Pitt GSB. That unknown project would become my future home in about 16 years from the day I graduated.
A few high school teachers and college advisors shared their belief that “computers are going to be important in your lifetime” – a statement my father had said to me in 1967 – but no one seemed to know why. In graduate school, I learned how business information systems worked, what they typically did and how they should be designed. I also learned why they were being built at a rapid pace, and why working with them would make for a good career.
Information systems were automating tasks that companies were paying lots of people to perform. Replacing people with systems saved money.
I entered the business world at the tail-end of the great purge of people from the kinds of jobs computers of that era did very well – processing the day-to-day transactions of business such as buying things, paying for things, counting things and reporting all of this to people who cared. However, computers were still large and expensive. My first job was to improve a payroll system to accommodate the fact that, beginning in 1978, Social Security withholding could exceed $1,000. In other words, the payroll system needed 4-digits to store Social Security withholding.
In my first bit of real-world education, I learned that the plant manager at the plant I worked at, would exceed that threshold in January. I didn’t understand the term “incentive compensation” and I didn’t yet understand how that plant manager was gaming the system. I just knew I had to work unpaid overtime in order to have that system ready before Christmas. I digress.
That payroll system ran on a computer larger than my garage. It gobbled-up time cards like candy, counted the hours people worked and calculated the pay of those people. Another system I was responsible for compared the hours those people worked with the amount of stuff they produced. If someone’s production rate was below the expected average, my program took note. In fact, my program produced reports on all such people. One master report for the guy maxing out his Social Security contribution in his first paycheck, and one each for his minions who had to go and speak with the problem-children in their department.
Other reports generated by my systems included people who were spending too much money, breaking too many parts, producing too many components that failed quality control checks, took too many sick days, worked too much overtime and showed up late for work too often. I hated that job; I seemed to be in charge of making people miserable. I didn’t like what I was doing for a living, but I was very good at it.
I moved onto a job designing systems to make peoples’ jobs easier. Automating the things they didn’t want to do and helping them do the things they enjoyed. I was also laying the foundation for machinery to one day do those same jobs, but that’s a subject for a later episode. In closing, let me add that no one imagined that machines would come along and perform those tasks. No one in 1979 could imagine that far into the future – all the way into the 1990s.
I don’t think we can imagine that far into the future today.
This post is the 2nd in a periodic series on technological change. The 1st episode is here if you’re interested.