A couple of great recent episodes of 99% invisible (one, two) tackle the “automation paradox”, where the increased use of automation leaves people unable to perform the task themselves.

The first episode uses the Air France Flight 447 crash as a hook to investigate the phenomenon:

The automated system suddenly shut off, and the pilots were left surprised, confused and ultimately unable to fly their own plane.

In a much less serious way, it got me thinking about the tools I’ve made for work. Nothing is so critical that its failure will dump the paper into the ocean but there are things that we rely on to get the paper out every day, including scripts to:

Most of this stuff could be done by hand. Most of it is pretty straightforward. The risk isn’t really in the automation breaking, but in the automation breaking and having no-one to fix it.

We don’t hire for the skills to do these things, and the complexity of our workflow has changed with the technical ability of individual staff members.

I don’t know how best to cope with this. If, say, I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what do other people need to know? What things wouldn’t even occur to them that they need to know about?

Should I draw up emergency guides, some kind of Plan R? What about the code itself needs changing? (God help me, no-one else should be exposed to the horrible mess that is the page generator script.)