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Automation's Double-Edged Sword Demands Sharpening of Skillsets

At the NFV & Carrier SDN event in Denver, Women in Comms panelists examined the impact of automation on women in the tech and communications industries.

Kelsey Ziser

October 16, 2018

6 Min Read
Automation's Double-Edged Sword Demands Sharpening of Skillsets

Automation holds a lot of promise to increase efficiency and reduce costs, but these benefits to network operations could come at the expense of jobs -- especially for women.

PwC categorizes the impact of automation into three waves -- the algorithm, augmentation and autonomy waves -- and forecasts that women could experience the greatest jobs impact in the 2020s, during are the algorithm and augmentation waves. Automation of simple computation and repeatable tasks will increase, and the financial, professional and technical services, information and communications sectors will be most impacted during these first two waves.

Men are predicted to experience the jobs impact of automation more during the autonomy wave of the mid-2030s when manufacturing, transportation and retail jobs will be impacted as autonomous robots and vehicles are widely rolled out. The Huffington Post reports that nearly "1.4 million US jobs are at risk from technology and other factors between now and 2026;" on top of that, 57% of those are jobs are performed by women. The impact of automation isn't all doom and gloom -- artificial intelligence, robotics and other smart automation could be a $15 trillion boon to global GDP by 2030, predicts PwC.

Figure 1:

At Light Reading's recent NFV & Carrier SDN event in Denver, panelists at Women in Comms' "Automation's Double-Edged Sword" workshop examined the impact of automation on women in the tech and communications industries, and discussed the importance of reskilling opportunities and company-wide initiatives in preparing employees for the jobs impact of automated environments.

One way to develop relevant skills and keep pace with automation trends is to seek out continuing educational opportunities, which can take a variety of forms. At Sprint, "the Hive" serves as a testbed for continuous process improvement, automation and digital transformation, explained Tracy Nolan, president of National Sales, Strategy & Operations for Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S). Employees at Sprint from a range of backgrounds, not just engineering, can spend a month working in the Hive "to build, test and deliver data-driven digital" services, and collaborate on processes that could be improved by automation.

The Hive "brings people from all different parts of the business to work together and come up with what's best to automate and how to do it," said Nolan in a video interview with Light Reading. "It's a way for people to understand that automation and retool to get into a great role in the future."

During the panel, Nolan said that employees should also take advantage of tuition reimbursement programs offered by their employers. "Show up strong at what you do today but also diversify [your skillsets]," advised Nolan.

Figure 2: From L to R: Kelsey Ziser, Light Reading; Amy LaFebre, Verizon; Tracy Nolan, Sprint; Shannon Williams, Infinera; Michelle Han, VMware. From L to R: Kelsey Ziser, Light Reading; Amy LaFebre, Verizon; Tracy Nolan, Sprint; Shannon Williams, Infinera; Michelle Han, VMware.

Amy LaFebre, director of Technology, Commercial Data Systems for Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), echoed Nolan's advice that workplace sponsors can encourage colleagues to progress in their career by pursuing new projects and opportunities that can expand their skillsets. LaFebre added that sponsors "help you in a new role you didn't think you were ready for."

"Get the most you can out of a role but continue learning," advised LaFebre. "Be comfortable with change and seek it out."

Next page: Take advantage of in-house opportunities to reskill

VMware provides employees with in-house opportunities to reskill and even move to a different department if their skills are better suited elsewhere, explained Michelle Han, director of NFV Solution Engineering and Validation for VMware. After five years or more at the company, employees can take part in the "Take 3" program and spend three months in another division or team to learn what that department does and if they might be suited for a new position.

Han also described a number of other initiatives at VMware that could support women during the industry move toward automation.

"About 605 managers at VMware took a training course last year on unconscious bias," said Han. "We try to go through training classes to bring up awareness ... diversity and inclusion is a high priority for every department and has become the very fabric of the whole company culture." Han also cited VMware's $15 million donation to Stanford University to launch the VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab, which will research causes of the gender divide in the workplace, and identify solutions to close that gap.

At Verizon, employees can test automated applications in informal group settings, which fosters an atmosphere of low-risk competition and encourages employees to collaborate on finding solutions, said LaFebre. Providing "playgrounds" where employees can test new services in a collaborative environment encourages the exchange of new ideas and can decrease fear of failure; employees also have the opportunity to present to their progress in automating tasks to executive leadership at Verizon, she added. LaFebre explained that these low-risk environments may be more attractive to women concerned that making mistakes could damage their credibility in the workplace.

How will service providers enable automated and efficient network operations to support NFV & SDN? Find the answers at Light Reading's Software-Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network event in London, November 7-8. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn from and network with industry experts – communications service providers get in free!

"The expectation [for women in communications] is higher because there are fewer of us," said LaFebre. "We tend to go that extra step and really have our material down … it's unfortunate that with so few women in executive leadership, if you have one that fails it draws more attention." Audience members agreed that they still feel pressure to work harder and perform better than men to earn credibility.

Shannon Williams, director of sales for major accounts at Infinera, explained that women hold themselves back in their careers if they don't take risks to further their careers.

"We're scared of being wrong but everyone is wrong at some point," said Williams. "We hold ourselves back by trying too hard to be perfect … It's about how you recover from those mistakes."

Williams' parting advice to women in telecommunications in the age of automation? "Keep learning and keep challenging yourself."

— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Conference Producer & Contributing Writer, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Kelsey Ziser

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Kelsey is a senior editor at Light Reading, co-host of the Light Reading podcast, and host of the "What's the story?" podcast.

Her interest in the telecom world started with a PR position at Connect2 Communications, which led to a communications role at the FREEDM Systems Center, a smart grid research lab at N.C. State University. There, she orchestrated their webinar program across college campuses and covered research projects such as the center's smart solid-state transformer.

Kelsey enjoys reading four (or 12) books at once, watching movies about space travel, crafting and (hoarding) houseplants.

Kelsey is based in Raleigh, N.C.

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