Every year, I am invited to London to help provide technical assistance for the course I alluded to in my previous post. And it's a credit to the lecturer that he continues to invite me even though I have all but automated away my usefulness long ago. From a strict cost/benefit ratio, I stopped being a fiscally sound expense two years ago. So before I start rambling, here's a shout out to him for allowing me to tag along every June because I absolutely adore this city. E-mail me if you want to know why I don't mention him specifically by name. I might respond truthfully if I can face the embarrassment again.

The real point of this post (other than the fact that the venue FINALLY has wireless Internet) is the aforementioned automation. Not the mechanics behind it but rather its consequences. The course is very computer interactive and involves the Big Three of Office 2000 (or higher): Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Nothing fancy for PowerPoint but the Word and especially the Excel components involve some macros. The spreadsheets have some automated charting features as well.

When I first started helping with the course, the charting was not automated for the students. They were asked to chart things by hand as an exercise. And the presentation was printed out and given to them rather than the PPT file itself. And the shortcut key I had originally chosen to launch the macros was Ctrl+W which was not a wise decision. (Give it a try in a normal Excel spreadsheet.) Plus, in my zeal to impress, I originally had the macros in a VBA add-in, which does NOT lend itself to easy deployment on forty computers.

The result is that I would spend a good chunk of my time jumping from one student to another fixing technical glitches (like running the macros on the current spreadsheet rather than the original one in case more than one copy is open) or helping them run the spreadsheet several times for the purpose of charting.

So over the years, I've cleaned up the macros and the instructor and I have moved more to the computer and away from paper. Installation now consists of copying a folder from a USB (or several if Mrs. Hillbilly, who acts as his manager of operations, helps out) on to the student's desktop. The changes have been incremental but in terms of my tasks, I do nothing that Mrs. Hillbilly and/or the lecturer can't do themselves. Any problems that come up are generally due to a student not being familiar with Excel (no, really).

It wasn't really my design to automate myself out of the equation. It was just me doing what comes natural. And the fact is, it hasn't happened. The nature of my tasks while "on course" has changed along with the interactivity of the course itself. No longer do I bob and weave back and forth among participants putting out fires. I have real-live development work that I do for the lecturer on occasion but it has always been secondary to his main source of income, which is oil and gas consulting. And the nature of both his and my work is that we are very rarely both free at the same time to work on his projects. In fact, we are rarely even in the same country at the same time since he is sort of a consultant to the stars with respect to the oil and gas industry.

For the other fifty-one weeks of the year, our working relationship is such that I work on something for a few days, then pass on questions and work in progress to him. Then I wait for a few weeks until he has time to review it and get back to me. Then I fit in some more work over the next few weeks. Rinse and repeat. But this one week each year is our guarantee that we will both be in the same place at the same time. And now that my course responsibility has been relegated to "baby-sitter", I can be that much more productive on the other work, which is generally more interesting than even my regular contract.

It's a nice counter-argument for consultants who like to build "job security" into their work. Just because your goal may be to automate yourself out of a job, doesn't mean you'll be out of work when you're done.

Kyle the English