Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is IT Automation Unethical?

Here's an interesting thought experiment in an age of automation and remote work.

As someone who has authored a few PowerShell courses, I tend to get a lot of emails from people who have PowerShell questions. A few months ago I received one particular email that really caught my attention. The person who sent me the message was an IT pro and a PowerShell expert. The person explained that they had built PowerShell scripts to automate nearly all of their job responsibilities. The problem was that they now had very little to do on a day to day basis. If the person admitted this to their boss, then they would have essentially automated themselves out of a job. At the same time, keeping up the pretense of being a hard working IT pro seemed dishonest.

The question at the end of the email was whether or not it would be ethical to continue working for the organization.

I don't think that there is an easy answer to the question. After all, everyone has their own idea of what is and is not ethical. Besides, a brief email message likely does not tell the full tale. While I don't claim to have a definitive answer to the question of whether it is ethical to automate your entire job, the email was so thought provoking that I just couldn't help but to weigh in on it. And feel free to leave your own comments below.

Hourly or Salary?
While pay structure might seem like a weird place to start with a discussion of IT ethics, I find it relevant nonetheless. An hourly worker is being paid for the number of hours that they put in, whereas a salaried employee is being paid to do a job regardless of how many (or how few) hours that job may take.

In principle (putting everything else aside for a moment), I am fine with the idea of a salaried employee automating their job responsibilities. However, it seems somewhat dishonest for an hourly employee to get paid for hours during which they aren't actually doing anything.

What Is the Job Function?
Another consideration that seems especially relevant to this particular discussion is the nature of the person's job function. Unfortunately, the email message that I received didn't say anything about what the person was actually hired to do, so all I can do is speculate. 

Generally speaking, an IT pro's main responsibility is to use technology to solve business problems. Part of that is to make sure that the systems that the organization depends on continue to run smoothly. In my mind, automation aligns well with those goals. The reason why I say this is because an automated process that has been thoroughly tested eliminates the risk of human error, thereby helping to keep things running smoothly.

Likewise, there are things that a PowerShell script can do that would be totally impractical for a human. In my own organization for example, I have a PowerShell script that I use to monitor disk health across all of my systems. That script is automatically run several times each day. As a human, it is theoretically possible for me to check disk health off and on throughout the day, but it doesn't sound like a very pleasant or practical way to spend my day. I would rather leave that particular task to an automated process so that I can focus on more important things.

Can You Ever Truly Automate Everything?
Another thought that comes to mind with regard to the idea of automating away your entire job is that it seems unlikely that an IT pro, no matter how skilled, would truly be able to automate every single one of their job functions. Even if that were possible, there are still going to be situations in which human intervention is required. Consider my disk health script. It does its thing all day long without me having to lift a finger. One day though, that script is going to discover a storage problem. When that day comes, the script won't be able to fix the issue. It will be up to me to replace the failed disk, rebuild the array or whatever it is that needs to be done. And really, that's what an organization is paying for when they hire an IT pro. The organization is investing in an expert who can fix any issues that come about with regard to the information systems that the organization is using.

Another way of looking at the issue of IT automation is that both business and technology are constantly evolving. Even if all things IT are currently automated, that does not mean that it will be that way forever. At some point, business or technology requirements will change, thus requiring new automations to be put into place.

The Issue of Perception
As I think on the issue of IT automation, I can't help but to think about the issue of perception. At one time, excessive automation could have been problematic from the standpoint that coworkers and management might assume that no work is being done (and that perception might even be accurate on some days). However, in this day and age of remote work there is a lot less micromanaging of one's day-to-day activities. Often times, management just wants remote workers to get the job done, and doesn't really care how it gets done.

What Are You Doing With Your Time?
Let's pretend for a moment that someone really does manage to automate most or even all of their job responsibilities. That doesn't necessarily mean that the person spends their day goofing off. As a manager, I wouldn't have a problem with an IT employee who automated all of their tasks so long as the automation works, the employee is able to fix any problems caused by the automation and the employee spends the bulk of their working hours doing other things that can benefit the company, such as learning new IT skills.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 20-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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