How to Add Creativity to Your Technology Career and Save Yourself from Automation and Outsourcing

In a recent blog article about the future of IT admins, my MUCOSUG-Buddy Wolfgang wondered whether the new generation of self-managed, appliance-like systems like Oracle Exadata, Oracle Sun Storage 7000 and their friends from other vendors are making IT personnel redundant, or what kind of jobs IT people are supposed to be doing in the future.

This reminded me of Dan Pink's book "A Whole New Mind" (Amazon.com|co.uk|de, BooksOnBoard). Pink argues that today's "left-brainish" jobs are threatened by "abundance, automation and Asia" (the latter really meaning "outsourcing") and that today's knowledge workers need to learn how to better employ their "right-brain" and add creativity to their jobs, as a new competitive differentiator.

How does this relate to Technology or IT jobs?

Technology Job Threats

In his book, Pink highlights three trends that threaten job security:

  • Abundance: In general terms, this means that consumers (and clients or customers) have a lot of choice - making it difficult to compete.
    What does this mean for your job?
    Ask yourself: How many people are there that have the skills you have? How much demand is there for your particular set of skills? Do you do something that many other people could do as well (and cheaper) than you?
    Do you really think that being yet another MCSE, Linux admin, .NET coder, webdesigner etc. will make you stand apart from the crowd?
  • Automation: Or, can a machine do your job better/faster/cheaper?
    This is exactly Wolfgang's question: What will sysadmins be needed for, if storage boxes like the IBM SVC or XIV or the next generation NAS boxes completely automate away the need for configuring and administering storage? What if your boss decides that the servers you used to maintain aren't needed any more because he's going to migrate their services into the cloud?
  • Asia: Meaning "outsourcing" (but Asia plays nicer with the alliteration).
    Can your job be outsourced? Check out the "Did You Know?/Shift Happens" video for some breathtaking numbers about the future distribution of knowledge power.
    IT job outsourcing is everywhere! From service call centers to programming to the back-office tasks in consulting.

Feeling Scared? You shouldn't be. These are just signs of change, wake-up calls to remind you that constant change has become a default state of being in the Technology world. Let's see what we can do to make ourselves more competitive/attractive/indispensable in our jobs:

In the main chapters of his book, Pink highlights strategies to escape from the three A-threats and find ways for knowledge workers to differentiate themselves, making you more unique, less replaceable by machines and helping you escape from being outsourced.

Let's see how we can use Pink's principles in our own Technology/IT job lives:

Spicing up Your Job with Creativity

According to Pink, it all boils down to the left side of the brain (analytic, logical, structured) vs. the right side (creativity and soft skills) (I know the left/right side of the brain thinking is debated, let's just accept this as a metaphor):
Traditional jobs are left-brainish: They're based on logical analysis, applying learned skills all over again, and very structured. Sounds mechanic? It is. That's why traditional jobs can be replaced by machines, or low-cost, overseas labor.
Creative jobs are, well, more creative. They bring in new stuff. They appeal to humans vs. machines. They represent real progress. And the one thing that is scarce, can't be automated (yet) and is difficult if not impossible to outsource is: Creativity.
So the question becomes: How can we turn a job that was traditionally meant to be purely analytic, logical, systematic, even mechanic (like many technology/IT jobs are) into a creative job that makes us use both halves of the brain?

Six essential traits of creativity are described in A Whole New Mind. Let's take a look at them, in the context of a typical Technology/IT knowledge worker:

  • Design: As opposed to function.
    It's not enough to put something together that works. Everyone can do that with some training, and there are enough cookbooks and blueprints and guides that make most solutions easily automatable, or outsourceable.
    Instead, look at design as a way to make your work better adapted to your customer. Make your product fit your client like a glove. Make it her product, that engages the human senses and individuality, instead of delivering another cookie-cut solution.
    One example is the recent proliferation of custom-made tea/muesli/chocolate/coffee/perfume and many other consumer products. This is a nice, creative and design-oriented trend to escape mass-production (Pink's abundance), outsourcing and automation in the modern food and consumer goods industries.
    If you're doing consulting for a client, make sure your solution becomes a custom design for your client, including local aspects (which outsourcers don't have access to), individual needs and ease-of-use. And make sure the human element is adequately present.
    Other examples include new generations of websites (for example Tumblr vs. Wordpress for blogging), software (check out "Flow" vs. traditional file transfer, or any other product that won the Apple Design award), even day to day products like phones (Do I need to say "iPhone"?), that come with a fresh, new design that is much more human, much more social, much more natural than what used to be.
    If you're a programmer, think about how to design your stuff so that your users enjoy using it. Make them smile!
    If you're a sysadmin, make sure your IT infrastructure adapts to your users vs. expecting your users to become mini-admins for something they don't have a clue of.
    Add that extra bit of creativity that differentiates your solution from a standard one, and makes it more human.
    What could you do to introduce a design element into your job? What are your job deliverables that could benefit from better design to make them better fitting to your employer/clients/colleagues?
  • Story: As humans, we're natural storytellers.
    Every time I get in front of a customer to talk about Oracle Solaris, I become a storyteller: How the idea for ZFS came to existence, how my home server is using Zones to separate services, or how I solved the year 2038 problem for a customer using DTrace.
    There's a whole new school of blogs, books and tools that can help you become a better storyteller.
    For instance, the number one place to differentiate yourself with in terms of storytelling in a technology job is by improving presentation skills. Make an effort to turn your presentations into stories that engage your clients, partners and co-workers. You will be remembered.
    The definite place to help you improve your presentation skills is Presentation Zen. You also may want to check out a writer's blog such as the charming Tribal Writer Blog.
    Where else could you incorporate more story into your Technology work?
  • Symphony: This means looking at the big picture, instead of putting the same pieces together again and again.
    It's also about creating something new, at the next level: A new IT architecture, a new way of solving problems (maybe more efficiently, maybe more cost-effectively, etc.), or working at a higher level of abstraction.
    Have you ever wondered how your work fits into the grander scheme of things? What would be the next step in the overall big picture that goes beyond what you're used to?
    If you spent last year configuring servers for a specific topics, then this year is the year where you could look at abstracting away that work, be the automator yourself and create an architecture of self-configuring servers, leveraging new technologies like Cloud Computing.
    Or if your old job of administering storage is replaced by that new self-managed box, maybe your real calling is in designing higher level storage architectures, using the boxes themselves as building blocks that free you up from thinking about the nitty gritty details, and looking at the next level of storage provisioning for your company. For example, the biggest feature of the Oracle Sun Storage 7000 system, DTrace Analytics, is all about giving you better insight and knowledge about your storage, enabling you to see the big picture!
  • Empathy: Use your intuition to figure out other people's emotions.
    I see this every day: People argue and argue around seemingly objective issues (like features, technologies, products, etc.), but if you take a step back and try to understand what's beyond the "objective" talk, it turns out that it's all about emotions.
    For example, I never regarded Linux as a technology. It's a social movement. It didn't become big in the IT industry because it was objectively better, cheaper or faster. The reason Linux became big is because people made their personal careers with it, found themselves at home inside the community and because they loved it.
    Whenever you're interacting with customers, partners, co-workers, etc.: Try to ask yourself: What's in it for them? How does she feel about the stuff you're talking about? Are you proposing a solution that will help them accomplish any personal goals? Do you have something in common that makes you both feel better and more connected about the solution you're providing?
    Needless to say, a machine can't know how your client feels and what he really wants in her heart, nor can a guy sitting in a callcenter 10,000 miles away. That's where you can add the most value.
  • Play: Let some fun fuel your creativity.
    Google's 20% of "play time" made this famous. This is not about playing WoW during work hours, it's about setting aside some time to try out something new, follow an idea, play with some new technology and try to figure out what it may be good for (or not).
    Many highlights in most people's careers started as playful experiments. This blog is the result of "playing" with Drupal and other tools, even blogging itself started for me as an experiment.
    Follow your instinct: Try out this cool programming language people are talking about. Or try coding in a different style (right now, I'm playing with the TDD methodology, while learning Python, which is another playful side-project for me).
    Maybe you can find a day and time in the week or month that is devoted to playing? I try to keep my Fridays empty on the calendar so I can focus on new stuff then.
    Playing with stuff will generate new ideas, it'll fuel your creativity and show you new possibilities that weren't there before. It helps you develop yourself into a better version of "you".
    Do you regularly play during work? Do you try out something new every now and then? Do you have pet projects? If not, why not?
  • Meaning: It's the purpose, not the pay.
    Finally, the last of the 6 traits that Pink describes in his book is about purpose: Bring meaning into your work.
    Machines don't have meaning. They just do what they're told. Outsourcing companies and their employees hardly add meaning to the projects they deliver. They just deliver according to spec, not more, not less.
    Meaning is the reason you do your job beyond the pay you get. It gives you the passion to stick through hard times and work that extra mile to accomplish something good for your client, your partners and your company.
    A lot of what I see in the OpenSolaris project has to do with meaning. It's what makes the community stick together as a whole.
    Great customer solutions have been created because the client and the consultant were united in a joint quest to make something big/beautiful/visionary real.
    As a sysadmin, you may want to redesign the way your company's processes are mapped to servers by introducing a higher level of service automation. As a programmer, you may want to work towards making an exciting new feature real. And as a system engineer, you may want to tell the world how cool a new technology is.
    Everything about your job becomes better, once you see the meaning behind it.

Conclusion

If abundance, automation and outsourcing are threats to your job, then creativity is your competitive weapon. Adding elements of design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning to your job not only makes it more enjoyable, they're vital components of making you more successful and less replaceable.

Which brings me to the next book on my to-read list: Seth Godin's Linchpin (Amazon.com|co.uk|de, BooksOnBoard: EPUB, ADE). A book that is all about being indispensable. But there seems to be much more behind this book, if the reviews are any indication. So I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Now it's Time for You to Become Creative

Where do you see creativity in your technology job? Which of the above 6 traits are you most likely to incorporate into your own job? What experiences did you gain from being more creative at what you do? What other opinions and tips do you have to offer that helped you deal with abundance, automation and aut... pardon, outsourcing in your work life? Feel free to add a comment below!

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