Automating Myself Out Of My Job
Why job automation is good, even if you lose your job.
It was 2009, I was 19 years old, had held 2 jobs since graduating college with my Associate of Applied Science degree and had accumulated over $3,500 in debt after indulging in a new Mac—now I needed to pay it off.
I was living in Los Angeles and experimenting in background acting, but after 3 months I found the work unfulfilling, so I began scouring the internet for a job. Shortly thereafter, I found myself eagerly looking at an ad for a Chief Operations Officer with a tech startup. I applied for the job with no prior relevant skills—and perhaps because of my gall, I was granted an interview for an opening as their social media manager.
The startup was an app called SafeKidZone—a now defunct business—providing its customers with a panic button app that connected you, your emergency contacts and a call center. The call center could also connect you with your local emergency response team (911) and share your GPS location with them.
I felt luck shining down on me as I landed every teenager’s dream job—getting paid to play on Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the Internet from home.
Two weeks after being on the job, the founder asked me to help out in managing the emergency call center. He said the fellow who had been managing the call center had fallen off the grid, leaving it unorganized and unproductive.
The founder knew I had no experience and not a clue of what was going on—but in a startup, it’s all hands on deck.
The startup’s call center was located in the Philippines and employed 4 people—2 guys and 2 gals. I connected up with them through Skype, email and later Google Documents (now Google Drive).
At first we went over the existing emergency call procedure, written by the previous incumbent. It was so convoluted that it was confusing and entirely unusable, so I revised it. The founder liked my updates and I liked the work so I ventured an offer to expand the scope of emergency procedure.
A few days later I showed him the expanded procedure and he loved it.
The Beginning of Automation
I then took it upon myself to write procedures for every task the call center could find themselves working on.
With that done, I wanted more. I wanted to hear from the pros. The founder was connected with our local police department, Pasadena City Police, so he offered to bring me there and introduce me to members of the force.
It was there I met one of their emergency response center agents. She was a very friendly, kind and helpful woman who not only showed me her transcript, but she also offered to answer numerous questions I had. She provided tips on best practices as well as offering relevant advice she learned through handling emergency calls herself.
As soon as I got home, I tore through our emergency call procedures, refining and adjusting them as I saw fit.
Validation from my founder was jet fuel for my productivity
My boss, the founder, loved my enthusiasm and decided to make my job as manager of the call center permanent. I even got a shiny, new title: Director of Operations.
Buzzing around with my new permanent position, I was keen to improve our emergency procedures further. If one observes that the lives of others potentially rests in their hands, shit starts to gets real.
I dug into Google again, this time looking for other 911 best practices. This allowed me to further refine my emergency procedures.
Practice Your System, Look For Bugs, Debug Them and Repeat
In between revisions, I would press the panic button on our app and act out various scenarios including: a drunk guy, a lost kid, an accidental press, a caller testing the service and any other scenario I could dream up.
The team would then handle my “emergency” exactly as I outlined in my procedures.
Each call was recorded and reviewed by me. In each review I could offer advice to my team and further clarify various aspects of my emergency call procedure.
I learned an important lesson through this process: educate don’t hate. Instead of getting mad at my team’s mistakes and confusions, I would clarify the process. As I outlined in my other article, Idiots Are Everywhere, there are no idiots only confused uneducated people.
My team was gradually growing through this process and at our highest point, I was managing a team of twelve covering 24 hours a day, 7 days per week with 2–3 people per shift.
Establish your managers (sheriffs) and their deputies to make yourself redundant and allow for automation.
I had two shift managers, one on day shifts and one on nights. While this worked well, occasionally my shift managers would go on vacation or get sick.
As a a solution, I established deputies. But because I knew those deputies too would have absences, I made each member of the team deputy managers on a rotating weekly basis. This structure allowed for great team building and managerial skills while ensuring absences wouldn’t create much discomfort for the rest of the team.
My team was operating autonomously 80% of the week.
With the majority of the team’s tasks made into procedures and an efficient personnel structure, my team was operating efficiently and independently 80% of the week.
Sure, they would call me when they ran into unusual problems, questions or the like, but I saw each one of those as an opportunity to expand my procedures.
When I knew my manager had the capacity to answer his own question, I would just fire it right back to him and see what solution he could come up with.
When my manager resolved his own questions and problems, it tended to increase his self-confidence and thereby his autonomy. It was a win-win situation.
As my next task, I created a procedure on how to practice handling emergency calls and let them run with it. As part of the procedure, they would record each call. Then, once a day I would review the calls alongside a list, outlining errors made and corrections directed by the manager.
This process became so effective that I was able to reduce how often I would review calls to about once a week.
When all was said and done, I had written 55 procedures, over a dozen related documents and my average daily work-hours had dwindled from 10 down to 2.
My remaining tasks involved establishing long-term goals for the call center, updating policy and reviewing emergency test calls.
With more leisure time, my mind headed in new directions.
With much more time on my hands, I began to look at UI (User Interface) and UX (User Experience) for both our phone applications and web app.
I noticed many bits and pieces relating to UX could be enhanced with simple visual changes. To take action, I created visual mockups in Photoshop and submitted them to our developers in the form of tickets. In a couple of short weeks I had turned in dozens of tickets including vital functional changes and minor aesthetic ones.
Unfortunately, the company’s developer was located abroad and while he was very skilled technically, English was his second language and there was a large time difference, thus my communication to him was often negatively affected.
With such a valuable application, I felt we should have had great traction with our customers. But in my heart, I knew we would have difficulty, if only because our app felt clunky and sometimes buggy.
Expect New Unrelated Jobs after Automating
While I was busying myself trying to improve the UX in my free time, I also began to find new tasks assigned to me that were not related to my job as Director of Operations.
Additional job tasks included:
- Writing business plans for other departments that listed steps to gradually accomplish the end-game.
- Drafting new webpage and phone app mockups in Photoshop to be sent to our developers. Once my Founder saw I had a knack for Photoshop, he too began sending me ideas he wanted sent out to the developers.
- Assigning data-mining and data-entry tasks to my team.
I had no problem receiving and completing these tasks because I felt they contributed to the overall survival of the group. Just a warning to anyone who automates their job: expect more work!
Then I Was Let Go
I enjoyed being paid on a salary no matter the hours I worked. And I figured that my initial investment of many hours and work allowed me to have the leisure time I now enjoyed.
Conversely, I also knew that our signup rate was nominal, our active user base was similarly small and thus our income had no real effect. I did some mental work and came to the conclusion that our burn rate was fairly high, so our runway was getting shorter and shorter.
Fortunately around the same time, I was offered an hourly job in a completely new industry—stud welding in oil refineries—with a hefty raise and plenty of overtime hours. I began the transition to this new position just as my SafeKidZone boss laid me off, and all in all it was quite smooth. I concluded that my 55+ procedures were what had done the trick.
Now I have two jobs, in two different industries where I’m acquiring life-skills and receiving ample pay.
I’ve switched my primary avenue of work to the family tile installation business where I do the marketing and organization, but I still do stud welding in oil refineries on occasion—in fact, I’m on a job right now, writing in my spare time.
At one point in 2014, I held a job for 1 year with an organization that advocated procedures documenting the duties related to jobs. It was there that I refined my job procedure process. I was able to produce over a dozen procedures documenting my entire job, including how to manage my team of 4.
While at that job, I was allowed to take occasional leaves of absence to continue working in oil refineries. My team was so great that not only did they put up with my departures, but they did their work just as flawlessly, simply by following my procedures.
After one year, the organization was absorbed and I was let go. Before I left I spoke to my replacement, who said she loved my procedures and found them very useful in taking over my job.
Businesses are only as strong as their teams, structure and training.
Over the past few jobs I’ve held, I’ve found that groups—including businesses—are only as strong as their teams, structure and training.
When any one person is absent, their tasks fall upon the shoulders of those dictated by the team structure. If no structure is available, their job remains undone.
Further, if structure is available which states who picks up the slack, the replacement can only perform so long as they are trained in that area. If no training is available and no documentation is available to instantly learn, the absence of any team member will create issues by the handful.
The solution is to make sure the all personnel have their jobs written up in simple, sequential procedures and checklists, so their absence doesn’t wreck the whole ballgame.
Companies with job documentation
I’ve observed that a company which isn’t organized with checklists and procedures will place great emphasis on hiring people who already have job specific training, while considerations like communication skills and alignment with company culture are put on the sidelines.
After documenting a job with checklists and procedures, priorities when hiring personnel shift into:
- Alignment with company culture
- Communication skills
- Job specific know-how
In essence, whether you are a cog in the machine or the guy at the helm, do yourself a favor and write up your job tasks. Make the write up simple, understandable and accessible.
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