Automation, AI, and recruitment interviews…

The Badger’s interviewed many people seeking employment in IT services over the years. It started with interviewing new University graduates as part of the early UK ‘milk round’, and extended into interviewing very experienced technical, delivery and line people as the Badger’s leadership responsibilities grew. If the Badger learned just three things from all this interviewing it was this. Firstly, that a CV is the candidate’s tool to stimulate an employer’s interest, but its content cannot be taken for granted. Secondly, meeting the candidate face to face is crucial, and thirdly, that good candidates have sensible expectations because they recognise their IT skills quickly become tomorrow’s commodity.

Why’s the Badger thinking about this? Two reasons. Firstly because young nephews are encountering today’s digital, AI-supported automation in the world of recruitment, and secondly because of reading the assessment of occupations at risk from automation published by the UK Office of National Statistics earlier this year.

Digital automation and AI continues to grow rapidly in the realm of recruitment (Here, here and here provide readable appetisers, for example). Within a few years, it looks like today’s youngster generation will be psychometrically tested, have their video and audio interactions digitally analysed, and possible have their public social media presences appraised like no previous generation before when they seek employment. It’s possible to foresee a time when youngsters will never actually physically meet anyone during a recruitment and interview process. Will that actually happen? Hopefully not, because nothing’s more powerful for an employer and a candidate when making an employment decision than physically meeting someone, shaking their hand, looking them in the eye, and having a dialogue that can go down unexpected avenues.

So, what’s the relevance of the ONS reference? It simply highlights the following. The percentage of HR resource leader and HR operations jobs at risk from automation is 28.2% and 58.01%, respectively. If you work in IT then at least 1 in 4 of the management consultants (27.09%), project managers (24.49%), architects and designers (28.4%), and call centre staff (54.83%) reading this today could be redundant in the coming years. Even 23.62% of Chief Exec and senior officials are at risk from automation! So, it’s not just youngsters like the Badger’s nephews who will be analysed like never before when they seek employment in the modern way, you will too!

If you lose your job through automation and AI, then it’s automation and AI that’ll be a significant factor in getting alternative employment! Make sure you understand how recruiters and employers use automation and AI and prepare yourself appropriately. Always meet a prospective employer face to face before accepting a job. Shake their hand, look them in the eye, and make sure that you’ll be working for a human being rather than a robot…

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‘Techlash’…’Backlash’…An inevitable part of the lifecycle of progress…

A copy of New Scientist from early 2018 caught the Badger’s eye while sitting in a waiting room recently. It looked out of place in the pile of well-thumbed healthy living, home, and gardening magazines, but it was much more interesting to read. As expected, it contained a plethora of interesting snippets on a variety of science and technology topics, but one short piece about ‘techlash’ – the growing disgruntlement with giant technology companies – struck a particular chord. The article may be 20 months old but it’s still relevant, as are similar Economist and Politico items of similar vintage.

Techlash’ continues. Today everyone has more awareness of the ugly side of tech from giants like Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google and Chinese equivalents, and even more snail-paced European and US politicians are demanding tougher regulation and controls. None of this should be a surprise. Why? Because most things that are initially lauded to be good for business, people, or society eventually suffer some kind of ‘backlash’. Fossil fuels, plastics, deforestation, privatisation, globalisation, outsourcing and offshoring are cases in point. All have at some stage over the years been viewed as ‘good for business/society/people’ and have made helped raise living standards, but they’re now all subject to question or a ‘backlash’ of one kind or another.

So, what’s at the heart of this lifecycle of ‘progress’ followed by ‘backlash’? Human psychology. In particular, our herd instinct and desire for social conformity, as this short video neatly illustrates. We tend to go with the herd to stay safe, and when the herd gets spooked and changes direction for whatever reason then we do too!

The Badger returned the New Scientist to the magazine pile and then read a news item about AI and robotics on his smartphone. It made the Badger not only think about the Terminator films and the recent ‘I am Mother’ film, but also conclude that some kind of ‘backlash’ against AI and robots is inevitable in the future!

‘Backlash’ and ‘techlash’ are words that describe antagonistic reactions to problematic trends, developments or events. Such reactions are a response to a problem, and where there’s a problem there must be a wrongdoer to blame! So, who creates the problems that spawn any ‘backlash’ or indeed the current ‘techlash’? Look in the mirror and you’ll see the culprit. If we as individuals took more time to think, resisted the herd by being truer to our own feelings, instincts and beliefs from the outset, then the world will be a better place for everyone. The chances of that happening? Slim – because we are human.

Education – A powerful force wielded by a Jedi knight…

Professor Brian Cox is currently embarked on his ‘Universal: Adventures in Space & Time’ World Tour. The Badger, and 4000 others from all walks of life, saw him when his tour came to Bournemouth recently. This preview gives a flavour of his show’s coverage, and the opening minutes of an actual show are here.

Brian spoke for over two hours, which might seem daunting if you think you’ll struggle with the underlying concepts of space, time, the big bang, general relativity, black holes and cosmology! But don’t be put off. The Professor is an excellent educator and communicator, and his show explains things simply and leaves you in awe of the Universe and our position in it. His tour moves to the Nordic countries next. If you get chance, go see it.

The show provides insight to the scale of our Galaxy and the whole Universe, and a reminder of just how insignificant our planet and humans are in the scale of things. It leaves you realising how important it is that our planet is sustainable because it’s delusional to think we have somewhere else to go! The Badger and friends chatted after the show. One made the point that while the Hubble telescope (for example) helps us to understand the Universe, the technology to put a human on Mars is not even a pin prick of the technology needed for ‘Star Trek’ space travel, so why bother? We concluded that technology development must always centre on the need for our planet to support sustainable life, rather than on consumerism, corporate power, convenience and commercial advantage. Idealistic? Perhaps. But there’s nothing wrong with that!

A few days later, Greta Thunberg spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit and the media was awash with pictures and comment. Her transcribed words are here. The Badger found himself not only wondering who’s behind this young lady, but also disagreeing with assertions about the betrayal of young people. (See also here and here). Perhaps Greta and the likes of Extinction Rebellion are approaching climate matters in the wrong way?

The Badger feels we need better, earlier, education that our planet and our species are but a speck of tiny dust in the scale of the Universe. When this is reinforced it becomes obvious that we create our own extinction if we don’t focus on our planet and technological developments dominated by planet sustainability. Education is a powerful force, and Professor Brian Cox wields that force like a Jedi knight. Put some of his tour show content into the school curriculum at an early age to influence the thinking of future generations and society and the planet will benefit…

Has ‘Tech’ made life ‘better’ today than it was at the time of 9/11?

9/11 happened 18 years ago. Most people will always remember what they were doing when it happened. The Badger was at work dealing with a major IT programme when the phone rang. It was the Badger’s young son wanting reassurance that his father was safe and not working in a London skyscraper! Reassurance was given, and the Badger then visited the BBC’s news website and was horrified by what he saw.

This year’s 9/11 anniversary and a recent BBC radio interview with Brad Smith from Microsoft triggered some musing on how far digital tech has changed life since that auspicious day in 2001when:

• There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Google News, Gmail, or Google Maps.
• The USA had only just made GPS signals available for civilian use.
• Microsoft XP and the first Apple iPod had just been released.
• There were no Apple iPhones or Android phones and digital cameras were rare.
• Satnavs didn’t exist and there were no Smart Meters or Smart Motorways.
• Drones were the domain of the military and were not available on the High Street for the general public.
• Music and films were purchased mainly as CDs or DVDs.
• The first commercial 3G mobile networks were only just becoming available.
• The dot.com bubble was bursting.
• Widespread IT outsourcing and offshoring was in it’s infancy.
• Our data was very much in our own hands.

How things have changed! Think for a few minutes and it’s apparent that tech and social media proliferation have provided ‘convenience’ for the average person but at the expense of privacy, disruption and perhaps freedom. Are we freer with a better quality of life today than in 2001? Life is certainly different, but it’s difficult to answer ‘yes’ when instant misinformation, manipulation and distortion abounds, and giant organisations know where you are, what you sound like, what you buy, your likes and dislikes, and sell your data for commercial gain. Ethics and regulation have not kept pace and so it’s heartening to now see Microsoft’s President saying sensible things about ‘tech firms stopping their ‘‘if it’s legal, it’s acceptable’ approach’ , AI ethics and weaponization. But will anything really change with such powerful vested interests involved? Let’s see.

It’s sobering to realise that those born at that time of 9/11 are now entering the workforce, or going to University, as fully-fledged digital natives whose life data is already extensively in the hands of others. That wasn’t the case for 18-year-olds in 2001. Tech and social media have made the lives of today’s youngsters ‘different’ to the 18-year-olds of 2001, but are their lives actually any ‘better’? Has tech really made the world a better place than it was in 2001? Try debating that at a dinner party if you want some fun. The most interesting views will emerge after copious amounts of wine…

Recycle your hoarded personal tech…

The Badger recently helped move someone to a new house. Moving not only forces the emptying of cupboards to reveal what’s stored away and forgotten about, but also decisions on what to keep, dispose of, recycle or give to charity. The move went smoothly, and emptying cupboards filled a number of boxes with old hoarded tech, cables, mobile phones, and so on.

The move coincided with media coverage of a Royal Society of Chemistry study that revealed consumers have millions of old gadgets stockpiled in drawers at home which, apparently, isn’t helping the growing shortage of some of the elements used in today’s smartphones and tech. The Badger’s interest was piqued, and – with the owner’s permission – a rummage through the boxes of discarded devices crystallized three thoughts.

First, if these boxes are typical, then to think that consumers have ~10 unused devices and cables stockpiled in their homes is an underestimate! The boxes contained many old cables, mobile phones, chargers, keyboards, mice, digital cameras, pocket PCs and PDAs, MP3 & CD/DVD players, handheld electronic games, console handsets, old eBook readers and much more. Anyone of the Badger’s generation or younger will have similar things hoarded in the dusty corners of their homes!

Second, most of the hoarded devices still work! For example, a Compaq IPAQ Pocket PC from 2001 running Microsoft Pocket PC fired into life like new when connected to its mains charger, and its 18-year-old software provides email, contacts, diary, internet browsing, Word, Excel, etc, much like today’s devices. Technology has, of course, improved since 2001 seeing these old devices still working makes you realise that clever marketing makes us adopt ‘the next piece of tech wizardry’ way before its necessary. These old devices still have some functional as well as recycled precious metal value.

Third, if discarded personal devices still work then they are useful to someone else. Yes, parents sometimes pass old phones to their kids, but why do we ultimately hoard devices rather than pass them onto other relatives, friends or charities? In the world of personal tech we need to be more aware of the RSC study’s findings and their Reduce, Reuse, Recycle message.

A few days after the move, the Badger watched a TV programme about environment activists. One of the interviewees said very preachy things that grated because they too will have discarded cables, tech and phones at home! The Badger has concluded that we consumers – and environment activists – need more awareness of the shortage of the precious elements in our tech and smartphones. Some elements could be exhausted within decades, and if we don’t promptly recycle our discarded personal tech the number of forthcoming robots we can build might be constrained. Hmm. On second thoughts, perhaps the Badger will put his old Blackberries at the back of a dusty cupboard after all…

An inspiring day out with codebreakers and the first electronic computer…

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The Badger visited Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) last week. It was a fascinating, atmospheric and inspiring day out, and very rewarding to hear the many visiting international tourists, young families, and elders say their expectations, like the Badger’s, were exceeded!

Bletchley Park, the home of British codebreaking, is where Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code and a birthplace of modern electronic computing. The secret activities of this truly historic site profoundly influenced the outcome of World War 2. Seeing and hearing about the work of the codebreakers, the tools they used, and the highly atmospheric huts where they worked instils marvel at the brilliance and dedication of those involved. The place is a wonderful memorial to the exceptional patriotism, commitment, discipline and ingenuity of the codebreakers who, 75 years ago, were instrumental in the birth of electronic computing. Awesome!

Bletchley Park was involved in the design of Colossus – the world’s first programmable electronic computer. Colossus helped analyse enemy ciphers in the run up to D-Day and a functioning rebuild of this beast is on display at TNMOC. It’s full of thermionic valves not silicon chips, and for those of you who’ve never seen a thermionic valve the picture above is a small subset of those on Colossus.

Seeing Colossus and all the other computer hardware and software exhibits at TNMOC really brought home how far electronic computing has come in 75 years. It also makes you aware of just how the silicon chip has revolutionised electronics and fuelled digital tech’s exponential growth in the last 40 years. It was sobering to stand in a room full of late 1970s mainframes and realize that a smartphone has more instantaneous functionality, processing power and storage than the sum of everything in the room!

On the way home, while stationary in heavy traffic, there was ample time to reflect on a great day out. Both sites provide a reminder of how important scientists, engineers and mathematicians are to finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. They also show and that experts 75 years ago were in no way inferior to their counterparts today. The impressive ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’ attitude of the codebreakers provides a stark contrast to some of the ‘I can’t, it’s too hard and it’s not fair’ complaining that pervades some parts of today’s social media.

As the ‘Smart Motorway’ signs decided to stop being smart, the Badger’s co-visitor asked if any philosophical nuggets of wisdom came to mind from the visit. The Badger thought for a moment. Yes! Take every opportunity to get an education – preferably as a scientist, engineer or mathematician – and don’t be fazed by whatever problems are put in front of you. And remember, ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’…. If Bletchley Park’s people hadn’t tried, we wouldn’t have the freedoms and computing technology we have today.

Customer centricity in online banking? It’s people not technology that make you feel valued…

Banks seem to believe ‘customer centricity’ means encouraging us to do everything online so they can close local branches. Where the Badger lives, for example, there were 6 branches five years ago – now there’s one. That’s not a problem for most of us – provided, of course, online services are joined up and work well. If not, customers get grumpy, re-evaluate their loyalty, and consider moving to where there’s a better ‘customer centric’ experience. The Badger’s doing just that! Why? Because of a recent experience applying for a savings account online with a bank where the Badger’s used their Internet Banking service for >10 years.

Things unfolded thus. A letter arrived saying the interest rate on an existing online savings account was reducing by more than a third. Shortly thereafter another letter arrived saying a ‘loyalty’ account with an enhanced rate could be applied for online. Time for action! The Badger logged in, applied, and was given a reference number. The account would be accessible in Internet Banking within 7 days. Seven days? Nah, surely with modern IT and an established long-standing customer it would be quicker. Hmm.
Seven days passed. Nothing happened. A standard letter then arrived saying a) the account couldn’t be opened because the Badger’s address didn’t match the bank’s records, and b) the Badger could correct his address via Internet Banking or by visiting a branch. The Badger logged in, found that all his details were correct, and was baffled. A 25-mile round trip to the nearest branch ensued.

A 25-minute conversation with a helpful cashier revealed that the bank had two customer records for the Badger, identical except for two slight differences. One has the Badger’s house name and street name, the other has the same plus the house number in the street. One has the Badger’s title as Dr. and the other as Mr. The cashier ‘sent some emails to get the data aligned’ and the Badger had to reapply for the account at the counter with the cashier.

The Badger was unimpressed. The original application was made when logged into Internet Banking so, surely, it could have been validated correctly and immediately? Surely with today’s powerful IT and modern technology, a bank has a single view of its customer and can identify from two near identical customer records that they’re the same person? Hmm. How silly to think that!

The Badger drew the following conclusions from the experience. Firstly, that the bank’s Internet Banking services are ‘bank centric’ and not really joined up or ‘customer centric’. Secondly, the experience at the branch reinforced the importance of face to face interaction with real people to make you feel like a valued customer. It’s this interaction that makes ‘customer centricity’ real…not technology. Loyalty is rattled. The option to move elsewhere is under active consideration…

A Tidy-up leads to ‘Privacy Rebellion’…

The Badger’s performed a much overdue tidy-up of his home office and more mementoes, defunct gadgets, old books, reports, and papers were found than anticipated. It started as a quick tidy-up but morphed into an archeological dig that triggered fond memories and wonderment. It’s amazing what accumulates in nooks and crannies!

Three things of note found were a 1999 Company Annual Report, an associated 1999 slide set from the company Leadership Conference, and a Palm Pilot from the same era. Tidy-up progress slowed while the Badger read the Report and the slides because in 1999 the company was a market leader in SMS and data transmission to mobile phones, and part of the slide set covered the future of mobile phones. Today, 20 years later, the company doesn’t exist, and the Badger’s smartphone hugely exceeds the vision painted in the slides. It reminded the Badger that company’s come and go and just how much information and mobile technology has changed our lives. And the Palm Pilot? Well the dust was wiped off…and it still works! The Badger’s wife wants these items to be recycled, but they’ve just been moved from the office to a nook and cranny in the garage. She doesn’t know this yet!

During a short break in the tidy-up, the Badger’s wife sighed philosophically and commented that ‘Technology has driven lots of good in the last 100 years, but the negatives have always been down-played until they’re blindingly obvious and cause everyone to run around demanding change. In the next 20 years it’ll be the same in the digital world.’ She elaborated a little with ‘Oil, nuclear, cars, planes, antibiotics, plastic, and palm oil have advanced our lives, but it’s only recently that everyone’s realised their impacts are unsustainable. People are fickle, it’ll be no different with AI.’

A fair point perhaps? The Badger nodded playfully and added that ‘data’ was the future critical commodity, and that there could be a ‘privacy rebellion’ when the general public fully appreciate that the conveniences provided by the Internet of Things and AI could mean the current concept of a private life disappears. Impish speculation, of course, but items about voice recordings (here, here and here) and facial recognition (here and here) just illustrate the need to be wary of what goes on behind the tech in our homes or on the street.

So, there you have it – a tidy-up leads to the prospect of a ‘privacy rebellion’. Why not have an office or man-cave tidy-up of your own? It’s therapeutic, you’ll reminisce, you’ll find gadgets you didn’t know you had, and it could even spark a philosophical discussion with your partner about the future. But best of all…you might get brownie points from your partner for recycling, even if you’re really just moving things from one nook and cranny to another…

Quiz night, ‘What 3 Words’, and is tech solving problems that aren’t really problems?

The following questions were asked during a quiz night at the Badger’s local Public House:

Who said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions’?

What geolocation mechanism can locate you anywhere in the world to a 3mx3m square?

The Badger’s team got the answer to the first one right, Albert Einstein, but we got the second one wrong. Our answer was GPS, but the quiz master said the answer was ‘What 3 Words’ – which you can find out about here and here and a specific example of its use here. The Badger’s team complained loudly, but to no effect. Why? Because it transpired the quiz master is a fan of the ‘What 3 Words’ smartphone app. Although the Badger’s team were not quiz night winners, the Einstein and ‘What 3 Words’ answers triggered a subsequent lively debate over rather more post-quiz beverages than prudent!

The debate centred on ‘Is tech increasingly solving problems that aren’t really problems?’. One team member cited digital number plates on cars (see here and here) as an example of something motivated only by making money. They speculated the ‘solution’ had been invented in 5 minutes and that 55 minutes had then been spent trying to invent the problem it was trying to solve. A reversal of Einstein’s wise words! Another team member was adamant that ‘What 3 Words ‘ is unnecessary given GPS is routinely part of modern smartphones. The Badger’s contribution to the debate was simply this. Entrepreneurs will always have ideas for making money, marketeers will always try to persuade us we need their solution to solve a problem or inconvenience we didn’t know we had, and we should never take tech at face value and always understand what’s happening to our data if we want our private lives to be just that…private.

Oiled by the beverages, the debate boisterously descended into a game that invented amusing word combinations, aka ‘What 3 Words’, for the location of well-known landmarks. For example, orange.ballon.home and wooden.plank.palace were proposed for the entrances to the US White House and UK Houses of Parliament, respectively! Eventually seriousness returned, and we concluded that tech should focus on solving the real problems of life and the planet, and not things that make us lazy or mean we don’t need to learn for ourselves or take personal responsibility for our actions.

At the end of the night all the team got up to leave except for one individual who said they’d stay to be like Einstein and spend 55 minutes thinking about a problem – whether they could actually get up to leave – even though they’d already thought of a solution – to just stay at single.malt.whiskey and have another drink. Did we laugh…just a bit…

‘A flock of corporate seagulls arriving from abroad’…

Periodically the Badger catches up with the BOFH column in The Register. It’s a longstanding, insightful and amusing column, and if you’ve worked in IT you’ll relate to the content no matter what your role. A piece from a year ago relating to the arrival and manipulation of auditors has triggered the Badger to start thinking about his own audit and review experiences. That thinking, however, as been interrupted by a call from an ex-colleague in a tizz because their project was to be reviewed by a ‘flock of corporate seagulls arriving from abroad’. The Badger simply recounted the following to establish some calm.

Many years ago, the Badger’s employer was a subcontractor to a US IT prime contractor running a £500m UK IT programme. Prime and subcontractor teams were largely co-located, but relationship, commercial and cultural tensions meant things were difficult. One day the prime’s Programme Director announced that three ‘experts’ from his US head office were flying in to conduct an ‘audit’ to help improve matters. The Badger was to be interviewed during the audit.

The one-hour interview happened 48 hours later. The visitor spent 20 minutes emphasising his seniority, experience, and that he had a direct line to the US CEO, the next 35 minutes asking questions from a standard checklist, and the last 5 minutes double checking he hadn’t missed any. The Badger was unimpressed, but pleased. Why? Because the auditor did 75% of the talking!

Three days later the audit team fed back to the prime’s Programme Director and subcontractor leads in a sparky meeting. Their message? Fix non-compliances with company policies and processes and all would be resolved. No one believed it! The Programme Director openly called them ‘valueless seagulls flying in to get the airmiles and to crap on my team’. The Badger might have been a smidgen more diplomatic, but not much. The auditors said they’d report him to the US CEO! They did. Nothing happened. Their final report was shelved.

The Badger took this from the experience. If you’re interviewed by a ‘corporate seagull’ you’ve never met, then assess if they’re any good in real-time during the interview itself. It’s easy to do. Don’t be in awe. Watch for an ego, the priority given to structure and process, listen closely, and stay silent as much as possible. Only answer the questions you’re asked – don’t embellish, elaborate or offer opinion. You’ll quickly see that a poor seagull will focus on the interview process or themselves and not you or your tactics. A good seagull, however, will quickly see you as a challenge, dynamically adjust their approach, and try to run off with your chips! Stay steadfast to your tactics in both cases.

The Badger’s ex-colleague called back this morning. They were disappointed. Why? They were expecting seagulls but what arrived were sparrows. Where’s the fun and value in that, they asked…