The art of working with a machine

What baristas can teach us about the future of work

Espresso machine’s schematic (credit: Stefano’s Espresso Care)

I recently watched a barista training session while sitting at the bar in a local café. It was really interesting to overhear how baristas are trained to do their job. Having never been one myself, I was intrigued to listen to hear what it takes.

What fascinated me the most is how much the training was centered on the espresso machine. The training mostly focused around how the machine works, the various parts of the machine, and how to make a drink using the machine.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself this makes a lot of sense since the majority of the work a barista does is to prepare drinks using the espresso machine. But it got me thinking a lot about the future of work.

An espresso machine is a pretty amazing piece of technology when you really dig into how the machine works. It has a combination of pumps, valves, and sensors that help it regulate water temperature, pressure, and volume.

Yet, anyone who frequents cafés throughout the world knows that you can receive the same product (say a cup of cappuccino) that greatly varies in quality. And you may be thinking that this has to do with the type of espresso machine used in the café or the beans a particular café uses, but you can go to the same café twice and have a great cup of cappuccino one time and crappy one the next. So while the quality of the machine used may give an advantage, it’s not the determining factor for the difference in the quality of the drink you receive. It’s the barista’s ability to work with the espresso machine that ultimately determines the quality of the final product.

The cappuccino I drank while writing this.

This is a great way to think about the future of work. Technology is increasingly becoming a part of our working lives. It’s really hard to find a job that exists today that doesn’t involve a machine of some type. If we take the job of the barista as a model, we can see that although machines are becoming a large part of the work that we do, there is still a role for us humans to play. We can be the difference makers.

Even over time, as machines continue to get more sophisticated, our ability to work with them is what will make a difference. Just like how the same espresso machine used by two different baristas can produce wildly different results, the machines of the future used by two different people will also be able to produce wildly different results. It comes down to our skills working with these machines. Like the job of the barista, the work of the future will evolve to be more about how we understand the machines that are available to us and how we use them to create something better than we otherwise could on our own, and they could on their own.

Instead of looking at the increase of machines in our working lives as some apocalyptic scenario where humans have nothing to do and the machines take over the world, I think we should look at it as an opportunity to do things better, to enhance our capabilities.

A final example that brings this viewpoint into light is chess. Originally, it was thought that no computer would ever be able to beat a grandmaster human player at chess. Well, that’s obviously no longer true. So you might think that means the best chess player in the world is obviously a computer, right? Wrong. The best chess players in the world are actually a combination of a human and a computer, the hybrid model.

It’s easy to get caught up with the general sentiment that machines and automation are going to take all of the jobs, but instead try to stop and think about all the times in the past where the same was claimed of a past era’s machines. Each time we come away with new jobs that work with new machines. Yes, the old jobs do disappear, but they are replaced with new jobs. So instead of thinking the rise of automation will take away your current job, think about it as a new opportunity to produce even better work. Use the barista as a model and ask yourself how can you gain the skills and abilities necessary to work with the new machines and enhance your output. That’s where the future of work lies.

Short-term vs Long-term Thinking

One of the hardest choices we have to make on a daily basis is choosing between optimizing for the short-term or optimizing for the long-term. Should we eat that donut today because it tastes good and won’t have an impact on today’s weight? Or should we choose to not eat the donut because over the course of our life, the less donuts we eat the healthier we’re likely to be?

It’s easy to get caught up in the here and now. It often takes over our thoughts. We optimize for the immediate because it feels good to be rewarded today. But every choice you make has a long-term impact. What you choose to do today, will effect you tomorrow. And the best rewards always take time to win.

This choice is made extra difficult because of the way we are wired. Evolution made us want to optimize for today because tomorrow was far from certain. But we now live in a world where tomorrow is often much more likely to come if we make intelligent decisions today.

The challenge everyday is fighting our own biology to make the tough decision to hold off on what gives us pleasure today in order to enhance our tomorrow.

Explorations

Came across this video last night from Bryan Johnson, former CEO of Braintree and now founder at OS Fund. I love thinking about the future and what’s possible. As this video shows, we are at an interesting point in history. The next couple decades are going to be really interesting.

We should probably stop picking on the robots…

Boston Dynamics released a new video showing off their latest version of the Atlas robot the other day. The entire video is quite impressive, but at about the 1:20 mark they start picking on it (yes, I know they’re demonstrating it’s abilities :).

I’m just glad I didn’t have the job of the guy with the hockey stick. When the robots rise up, they’re going after him first. This is why we get things like the Terminator…

Is the game ever over?

The big news last night was Justice Scalia passed away. That’s sad. Whenever someone looses their life it’s tragic. It reminds us of how fragile we all really are. 

Unfortunately, that was far from the reaction to Scalia’s passing. Instead people from both political leanings focused on what it means for them. For Republicans, it was all about the strategy of making sure the next president decides on the next Justice, not Obama. For Democrats, it was showing how Republicans aren’t following their duties but instead pushing their politics, while also celebrating the opportunity to push a Justice of their liking with Obama still in office. 

Is this not a tired act? Can we not have at least a few hours go by after someone passes away to just forget about the politics? Maybe I’m just impractical but this game is getting tiring. Politics should be about bringing people together and coming up with the best ideas for everyone. Instead, we have two parties that won’t stop bickering with each other. 

Both sides of the aisle treat this whole thing as a game. Instead of thinking about how we can help each other out, it’s all about how can we beat the other side. When does the game end? Is it ever over? When do the people matter more than winning an endless game?

A new challenge

As someone who believes in life long learning, I think it’s essential that we challenge ourselves from time to time. It keeps things interesting and new opportunities arise when we do new things.

That’s why I have decided to start blogging everyday. I will continue to write longer pieces and will keep them separate as essays but I want to challenge myself to write and publish everyday. Whether that’d be an insight, observation, or something fun, I am going to push myself to put something out there.

Let’s see what happens…