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.