Do you work above or below the API? Recently, I was introduced to the concept by a newsletter of Mark Manson where he talked about people being left behind because they get stuck in a rut and fail to reinvent themselves. The idea is that when you work below the API, you’re basically working for an algorithm that tells you what to do. The only reason your job still exists is that you’re cheaper than the fully automated solution.
We tend to think of jobs below the API as those requiring limited skills, such as Uber drivers, but with the emergence of AI, whitecollar jobs are affected as well. For instance, ML/DL systems are better than radiologists at analyzing medical images. In practice, this means that medical images are analyzed by algorithms and those tell the radiologist what to do next to best diagnose and treat the patient. Similarly, for lawyers, NLP algorithms autonomously analyze massive amounts of documents to detect anomalies and then tell humans which ones to look into. The same is used in accounting for bookkeeping records and quarterly and annual reports.
The ambition for anyone has to be to work above the API, ie to engage in those tasks and activities that are difficult if not impossible (for now) to automate and to, directly or indirectly, program the algorithms below the API to do their job optimally. Of course, our ability to automate tasks and activities constantly improves, meaning that the API is ever moving upwards towards more demanding tasks, as measured in terms of required education, intelligence and creativity.
In our professional lives, the principle of working above the API applies, of course, directly. Some people I meet relish in repeatable, predictable tasks and get a lot of comfort and structure out of them. The work then becomes more of a habit, executable on automatic pilot. The more repetitive and structured a task is, the easier it is to automate and consequently, you’re setting yourself up for obsolescence. I often hear as a counterargument that there are lots of subtle differences between the repetitions of tasks and it would thus be hard to automate. In practice, however, automating a task almost always requires a standardization of the context in which the task is performed.
Rule 4 for thriving in a digital world is to automate repetitive tasks. This means that you constantly look for ways to use software to perform tasks automatically whenever there’s even the slightest repetitive nature to them. Examples include simple things like automatically redirecting emails into different folders so that you don’t have to waste time on irrelevant ones or elaborate spreadsheets where you only have to put in a few numbers to get the results of a complex analysis presented back to you. Of course, more complex solutions include robotic process automation (RPA) and machine learning. You may feel that some of this is beyond your capabilities, but there are more and more low-code and no-code solutions that make it exceedingly easy even for non-programmers to create solutions.
The reason for automating the repetitive tasks is for you to free up time for the work for which your unique skills and capabilities are optimally used. This requires you to deeply engage with the subject matter and to get into the flow that allows you to do your best work. Constant interruption triggered by urgent but relatively unimportant tasks is highly detrimental to your ability to deliver the quality of results you’re looking for.
Privately, of course, automation of repetitive tasks is important to ensure that you can spend your time on things that you care about. This can range from automating monthly payments that you can’t skip anyway to buying a robot vacuum cleaner to free up time, but also include hiring a tax expert to file your taxes for you or a personal trainer to ensure that your time in the gym has the biggest impact. The latter isn’t necessarily a form of automation (yet) but serves the same purpose of freeing your time up so you can spend it on things that are uniquely yours.
Working below the API is a recipe for obsolescence. You should actively seek to identify repetitive tasks in your work and, once you do, investigate ways to automate them. This allows you to spend the majority of your time and energy above the API, where your unique skills, education and creativity are optimally used. Build the habit of continuously questioning and, where necessary, reinventing your habits for optimal outcomes.