one person sitting at a desk pointing to a computer screen while another person looks at the screen
Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Want to get your hands on tech that’s revolutionizing the world of work? You might want to consider working with software bots.

These programs are designed to automate many of the time-consuming and repetitive tasks that people have traditionally had to do, freeing you up so you can tackle more fulfilling work. Bots are revolutionizing the economy, changing the nature of work for not only the software engineers who design them, but also the accountant for whom a bot can automate the mundane parts of the job or a customer service department that uses a chatbot to help users troubleshoot issues.

Alexandra Levin, speaker and author of Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future, points out that while bots and automation are already disrupting business and finance, they’ll soon be used for supply chains and manufacturing, law, medicine, and a host of other fields. And with the world facing an enormous economic upheaval in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, she says it’s more important than ever for people to prepare themselves for what’s to come by building a wide-ranging, future-facing skill set.

“There really is no job that you’re going to go into in this day and age in which you aren’t going to have to interact with automation, bots, or some form of artificial intelligence,” Levin says. “The question is not who needs to pay attention to this. It is, who doesn’t?”

If you’re thinking about working with bots, here are the most important skills you need.

1. Critical Thinking

April Morris is a professor of accounting at California State University, Fullerton, focusing on data analytics, visualizations, and robotic process automation. In one of her business classes, students must create a software bot to scrape information from the Securities and Exchange Commission about how a certain company’s investments perform. Then, the students analyze those investments by category and track how well the company does over time.

Critical thinking is the number one strength Morris wants to see in her students. “There’s a tectonic shift in the types of skills students and people are going to need long-term to be successful in the plugged-in world,” she says. Employees need to be able to think critically about how automation could streamline or improve their work. It’s also crucial to diagnosing problems in a complex system since the answer might not always be obvious.

2. Creativity

Working with bots and in bot-adjacent fields demand that you imagine what a program can do better than a human. But it also requires that you think about what the human mind, freed up from rote tasks, can accomplish. “Once bots take away the mundane component of your job, then what’s left are the things they can’t do, which are strategizing, thinking, and figuring out how to respond to problems,” Morris says.

3. Adaptability and Agility

Morris says of the automation revolution in business, “What I liken it to is when Excel first came out.” The Microsoft spreadsheet program didn’t displace people who’d been working with calculators or adding machines—it gave them a powerful new tool to help them work smarter. “If you embrace this technology, if you understand this technology, if you work on your critical thinking skills, then you will be part of the change and you won’t be left behind,” she says.

“You have to be willing to look at things in a fresh way, and you have to be nuanced about it,” Levit says, which goes for both industry leaders—who are trying to figure out how best to combine the talents of machines and humans—and workers who are trying to find their place in a changing economy.

4. Mastering Current Tech

The midterm assignment in Morris’s class is to get a data processing certification in one of the new systems such as Alteryx or Amazon Web Services (AWS) that allow people and businesses to easily ingest, process, and analyze big data sets. This year, she taught her class to use it to do their taxes.

“Employers have told me, ‘If they get certified in one of these data solutions, they’re hired.’ Everybody’s looking for these skills,” she says. Levit recommends getting up to speed on Amazon’s tech and particularly AWS for Everyone, a low-code or no-code way to build applications. “You’re taking the technology into your own hands rather than waiting on somebody to tell you what you should use,” she says.

5. Openness to Change

Even if you’re on top of today’s most important technologies, it’s crucial not to rest on one’s technological laurels. “For a person who’s working in today’s environment, you have to be a little bit ahead of the curve,” she says. That means taking it upon yourself to stay on top of tech advancements.

Ironically, she says, tech workers have been some of the worst offenders when it comes to not staying current. Many people got used to their coding and other technical skills being in high demand and became complacent. But in the fast-moving modern economy, raw technical capabilities are among the first to be automated. “The people who are going to fail are the ones who refuse to acknowledge this is coming and aren’t going to learn new skills to make themselves desirable,” Levit says.

6. Communication

While bots are ideally suited for technical and mechanical tasks, they are a long way from being able to relate and connect. Interpersonal skills will always be in demand.

Levit says many workers focus solely on their technical abilities. That’s a mistake. If you want to be future-proof, focus on the skills that make us uniquely human, like intuition, judgment, problem-solving, and innovation. Humans are social animals and the workplace will always have a place for great communicators who can understand what clients need or what stakeholders expect from a project.

7. Patience

Bots have been simple enough that even those without advanced technical degrees can use them. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get the exact data or answers you need for a project the first time you try. New entrants to the field must be patient with the tools—and with themselves.