How to future-proof your job: tips from a Gen X who learnt from a millennial

Re-skill by requesting to move to the disrupting department. It's about future-proofing yourself - making yourself relevant and keeping abreast of developments and technology.

What do you do when you fear robots may take your job? And when you work in an industry like mine - print media - going through technological disruption that is upending traditional business models, and changing the way we work each day?

You can get out of the game. You can stay but resist change. Or you can join the fight.

And for news media, the fight is to go digital.

I spent a week recently attached to the Digital section of my newspaper. My colleagues who work on The Straits Times' online and mobile content sit in the large newsroom with all the rest of us working on the print paper. But their timelines and instincts are different. Print folks work to daily deadlines. They operate under minute pressure. Those who write and edit the Breaking News section can't even take pee breaks without having someone else cover for them, in case, you know, the North Korean leader chooses to do something dramatic in those few minutes.

In print, many of us still think in words and sentences. Some of us like subtle. Online, you think in pictures, and video, and lists, and short bursts of text that grab the reader by the eyeball and yank her into a story.

Students from various schools taking a tour around The Straits Times newsroom. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 

I had a great time learning from my Digital colleagues. I learnt how to use our content management system so I can edit headlines and rearrange the flow of articles on our Opinion page website myself, without having to send out irritating emails to already over-taxed Digital sub-editors.  

I spent enjoyable hours fiddling with controls, downloading pictures, piecing together a short, very straightforward video. It took me six hours to make one short 30-sec video. It isn't even very good, but I felt proud of it the way a mother loves her ugly baby. When I needed help, I sat down beside my colleague Tay Hong Yi, a 20-year-old intern, who clicked and moused and pressed a few buttons to show me how to add credits, edit captions, move frames, and rip videos. I had to ask him to please slow down so I could observe and take notes. That was a lovely Gen X meets Millennial moment.

That week with Digital was one of the highlights of my career, right up there with the thrill of covering elections. In part, it's because, after over 25 years of writing and editing for print, I'm a bit jaded. Nearly every issue I come across in my news feed - apart from the remarkable phenomenon called Donald Trump which is truly eye-opening for this generation - is something I've read about, or written about, some time in the last two decades. Even disruption - technological advancements changing business models and lifestyle, threatening jobs - are all issues that have been much analysed. And so I enjoyed the feeling of my synapses firing up constantly as I struggled with learning a new content management system (CMS), learning about Facebook analytics, seeing how data can be converted into tables that tell a story, learning different ways of telling a story.

The Straits Times has put our print paper online since the late 1990s. But we truly began to merge our news operations and develop a digital DNA, only in the last five years or so. Our reporters now routinely file for online, then develop a fuller version for the print edition. Print editors have to think digitally. As Opinion Editor in charge of Op-Eds, I'm constantly online, sifting through not just legacy wire feeds of news, but also online sites, blogs, and even my own Facebook news feed, for fresh perspectives. I also write a regular blog, write Facebook blurbs, and rewrite print headlines for digital. Next: repackage serious commentaries into bite-sized morsels that can be easily consumed by social media users; and turn some into short, snappy videos. 

Unlike some writers who like being cheem (deep), I have always taken pride in trying to write simply and clearly as a journalist. When I was a writer (and not an editor who spends most of her time working on other people's copy), I relished the challenge of  processing hundreds of pages of reading and hours of interviews, and distilling the essence of all that information into an article of 1,000 words - or 1,500 if you are very very lucky. It's fun to take a serious topic, digest it, give it both the bird's eye and worm's eye perspective, and spew it out in the form of a snappy article that people want to read. 

Digital extends the reach of good writing, so we journalists love online, and the way social media lets our stories get liked, commented on and shared. And unlike some editors who think it's dumbing down to churn a listicle out of a serious commentary, I see such efforts as ways to reach new audiences. If I can "trick" some readers into reading articles they would normally not pay attention to, I would feel like I'm doing something good - good for the reader, for the author of the article, and good for all of us as a society, since we should all be reading beyond our filter bubbles, right? Today, for example, Professor David Chan, one of our regular columnists, parses the art of the apology in a commentary. You can read the long version here. There's a shorter version here too.


But whatever I'm trying to do to save my job from robots will only work for a while. Already, artificial intelligence bots have been able to generate news articles for a few years now. Narrative Science and Automated Insights are two tech companies that have language-generating platforms. They can write news articles on sports, market reports and election results. And if you think robot-generated articles are robotic, you're wrong. The later iterations of bot-writers can weave in analysis and context. 

The Washington Post reported a congressional election this way: “Republicans retained control of the House and lost only a handful of seats from their commanding majority, a stunning reversal of fortune after many GOP leaders feared double-digit losses.” This was a report on how Republican Steve King beat off Democratic challenger Kim Weaver in the race for Iowa’s 4th congressional district seat in November 2016.

As Wired magazine reported in February:  "The dispatch came with the clarity and verve for which Post reporters are known, with one key difference: It was generated by Heliograf, a bot that made its debut on the Post’s website last year and marked the most sophisticated use of artificial intelligence in journalism to date."

Commerce Bot, a robot that provides customer service with artificial intelligence technology and voice recognition is seen at SK telecom's stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb 28, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

When bots can write political analysis, what's next? Bot editors, that's what. Already, algorithms can rearrange the flow of stories on a web page or choose pictures or headlines to maximise audience reach. They can do so faster and more accurately than human editors. Sure, such bots will need some human interface or human editor to make some decisions. But instead of 10 editors, future news websites may need just one. 

What's happening in the media industry is replicated across industries. Retail is up-ended by e-commerce as people shop online. Manufacturing is handed over to robots. Automated vehicles send drivers out of jobs. Avatars and animation whisk jobs from actors. 

So you see, joining the fight was all about job security.

How to future-proof your job? Okay, that was a trickster headline to lure you in.

But seriously,  ask yourself: "Where's the fight in your industry?" Figure it out, then take action.

If you're an SME boss, understand digital, sign up for a Google or other digital marketing course. A worker in a fast-changing industry? Watch a TED video, keep up to date with online news in your area. Re-skill. Ask for a move to the disrupting department. 

Actually, it's not about future-proofing your job. It's about future-proofing yourself, making yourself relevant, and up to date, and engaged.

The key is to embrace change, before change knocks you off your feet.

Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong blogs on Saturdays on issues and commentaries.