Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Are jobs being sacrificed for greater technology? - Part I

Today I found a nice read written by Andy Kessler, in his new book "Running Money". Thought i ll share it here. This article beautifully sums up how technology is making inroads into people's lives. Are jobs being sacrificed for greater technology? Well.. read on...

United Paper Shuffle

by Andy Kessler

"You can't wear jeans," the woman at the United Airlines counter told me.

"What was that?" I asked.

"I'm sorry, we have rules and codes of conduct to adhere to. I can't let you sit in First Class wearing jeans."

"Really?" I had a cheap suit in my bag, but the last thing I wanted to do was dash into some phone booth and change into super executive so I could fly to Chicago.

"We can't have some sort of riff-raff in our premium sections."

"Well, I'm headed to a--"

"This is United Airlines, global leaders in air travel and destinations."

"I'm interv--"

"Just a second. Your record is flashing red. This is very odd. Are you some sort of VIP?"

"I like to think so, but I don't think too many beyond my mother would agree."

"Well someone at United Airlines thinks so. Your record has been flagged and the ticket comped. I don't think I've ever seen one like this. Family members get comped, but something is going on here with your record. Here you go, seat 2B. Or is that 'not to be,' tee-hee. Enjoy your flight."

She then whispered, "Next time, please don't wear jeans -- we have standards here."

"OK, got it," I whispered back.

"And welcome to the Friendly Skies," she shot back.

Actually, I was headed to a job interview at United Airlines outside of Chicago. I was a 26-year-old techie, and could not have cared less about United. But they were nice enough to provide a round trip first class ticket to Chicago, where my girlfriend Nancy happened to live, and I was tired of paying up for the 771-mile trip.

On board, I sat next to a pilot who told me he was jealous that I got to wear jeans in First Class. I saved the "I'm interviewing" line just in case he started harassing me, but he couldn't have been a nicer guy.

Chicago, Illinois: Spring 1985

"Hello, welcome to United Airlines. Thanks for coming out all this way. I'm sure you have a very busy schedule, I appreciate your time."

"Not a problem, I have been looking forward to this visit to Chicago."

"Great. Oh, I should introduce myself. I'm Norm Poole. I haven't been here that long, six months or so. I was hired with the task of updating United's computer systems. It's pretty antiquated stuff around here. You're from Bell Labs, right?"

"Yes -- Holmdel."

"Great. I saw that on your resume, that's why you're here. Actually, my son is also with the Labs, out here at Indian Hill."

"I doubt I know him, it's a big place."

"OK then, let's head back to my office. It's a bit of a hike. They don't care too much for us tech types." Norm and I proceeded to walk what seemed like a quarter mile through United's building.

"You know that United is building a new terminal at O'Hare?"

"I think I read something about that."

"Yeah, it is loosely based on the Great Crystal Palace of Victorian England fame, 1850-something."

"In what way?" I asked.

"As far as I can tell, lots of glass."

"I like watching the planes take off and land."

"Most people do, calms the nerves. Actually, the Crystal Palace was part of the Great Exhibition that showed off all the accomplishments of England and its colonies. So the powers that be around here want the new terminal to be as high tech as possible, to show off their constant path towards progress, a รข Now is the Time' sort of thing."

"Isn't that the tag line of the GE Carousel of Progress at Disneyland?"

"Probably. Wasn't it the World's Fair? No matter. We'll show off our advanced thinking."

"How is that?" I asked

."Lots of computer monitors, maybe even in color. Plus, we have to figure out some scheme to move data around without wires. The architect has already placed all the glass and forgot we might need wires. Wires are pretty ugly, so my group has to fix the design flaws with some wireless technology."

We wound our way through the building talking about computers and networking. I realize later that the interview had already started, but I was too busy talking in the sights.

"So, you know a lot about the UNIX operating system?" Norm asked.

"Sure, I use it, and I can program in C." I answered.

"Great. That's what we use around here."

We kept cutting through these large rooms with giant tables in the middle of them.

"Personally, I prefer VAXes. UNIX machines are always crashing."

"OK, Andy. This is an airline. There is an unwritten rule to not use that word."

"Which word?"

"The C-word."

"Oh, I get it, sorry. I find that UNIX machines are ... are prone to unscheduled service disruptions."

"There you go. You'll fit in here well."

As we walked through more of these rooms, I kept noticing what looked like airline tickets stacked in foot-high piles all over these massive tables. Workers (almost exclusively women, but of all ages), were gabbing away while flipping through these piles of tickets. It seemed like United Airlines Global Headquarters had dozens of these rooms, with stacks and stacks and stacks of these tickets.

"Can I ask you something?" I asked.

"Sure. Fire away." Norm answered.

"What's with those giant tables and all those women?"

Norm started to chuckle. "Oh that? Ticket sorting. It's sort of the dirty little secret of the airline business. We can get people on and off planes, and fly them to where they need to go, but then we have to sort all their damn tickets."

"Don't you just throw them out after the flight takes off?" There were no depths to my personal naivete.

"We wish. Every single ticket is flown back to headquarters to be processed. First we have to strip out our competitors tickets, which we accept for payment, and then settle with them."

"Aren't they a different color or something?"

"That would make it too easy, but not a bad idea. Once their tickets are gone, we have to sort our own tickets and match them against the flight manifests to make sure everyone actually paid, measure yield and load and all those other things that schedulers like to know about."

"Wow, sounds like a really boring job."

"I'm sure it is. Most of these people are high-school grads, and maybe a few dropouts. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to sort tickets, but you've got to be literate."

"But this is 1985. Shouldn't this stuff be automated somehow?"

"You're kidding right? There is a room full of Ph.Ds who sit around and figure out just how to code those stupid tickets, so when we get them back, we know where they came from. Each ticket is touched something like fifteen times from the time we collect it at the airport until we are done with our sorting and accounting."

"But isn't it expensive?"

"Probably 20 bucks per ticket. I've only been here for six months, but as far as I can tell, the airline industry is not that concerned about costs. First, they -- er, we -- can just raise prices. You pay the $20, not us. Second, if we took one olive out of each salad we serve on every flight, we could save a half a million bucks a year. Sorting tickets is a necessary evil."

"Still ... "

"I know, I know. I agree. If I were in charge, that is the first thing I would attack. Get rid of the stupid tickets. But my priority, my mandate, is to make the Crystal Palace at O'Hare seem high tech."

We walked through four or five more of these rooms, and I started thinking hitting rocks with a sledgehammer all day was more interesting than running an airline.

"OK, we're finally here."

Not me.


"It's not the voting that's democracy, but the counting"


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