By: Leon Adato, Head Geek™, SolarWinds
In programming circles, Nihad Abbasov is a legendary developer known for his epic attempt to automate much of his daily life—even coffee making. An extreme example of automation in action for sure, but one that’s becoming ever more tantalising for overworked IT pros, whether we continue to work from home or are beginning the transition to some form of in-office presence. In a recent survey, over 22% of IT pros were reportedly highly stressed, with near equal percentages being stretched thin while shouldering Sisyphean technical workloads every day.
Given the ongoing rate of change in the world, just about everyone feels overworked these days. But IT pros have the unenviable job of ensuring critical remote work solutions and systems remain operational, on top of ensuring existing mission-critical systems and infrastructure chug reliably along. With workloads like these, it’s no surprise IT pros are considering much more automation of their tasks—once a an object of scepticism, if not a mortal foe—as a potentiallifesaver.
Eat, sleep, automate, repeat
IT pros take fierce but quiet pride in being masters of the technical domain. For those in ops, this includes the competency needed to deploy key infrastructure, negotiate budget and resources, and troubleshoot small persistent problems. These aren’t tasks a robot (even one equipped with the most current artificial intelligence (AI) technology) could perform. They require human judgement, contextualization, and interpretation. But the after a prolonged stint at home, most IT pros have discovered how certain repetitive but crucial activities—like maintenance and configurations—can be made less irritating with some automation.
Take the task of rolling out an updated security certificate across multiple application servers. The first of these don’tfeel intrusive—it has to be done before you can get to the more interesting stuff. But after the hundredth time typing variations of the same commands onto a console, even thestaunchest (not to mention most patient) IT pro will begin wondering if their precious time and skills would be better spent elsewhere—like automating this mind-numbing task, for starters.
Automation anxiety amongst IT pros remains a phenomenon that’s at once both difficult and easy to understand. Creating one-button automation loops for important but repetitive technical tasks allows IT ops teams to return to the creative projects that spark their interest and give them pride. However, the fear of unleashing an uncaring, unstoppable software version of the water-carrying brooms from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (https://video.disney.com/watch/sorcerer-s-apprentice-fantasia-4ea9ebc01a74ea59a5867853) is enough to cause a technologist new automation to hit the “pause” function. On top of that, it’s only human nature to wonder if there’s a slippery slope—a tipping point beyond which skills that required years for us to develop could be replaced by machines in a nanosecond.
The key to overcoming these fears is remembering who’s in control: no code should go into production without testing and safeguards. In that regard we can let our fears be our guide. Concerned about code running out of control? Put in limits and checks, so it shuts down after x iterations. Unsure if the automation will do what we want? Test, test, and test again. Meanwhile, instead of robbing them of their jobs, IT pros should focus on how it lets them return to what they love about their role in the first place. Automation should be obviously beneficial to everyone, just like using wheels to move heavy objects.
Bringing the robot to life
Once upon a time, all you needed to make the magic of automation happen was a deep understanding of programming and years of coding experience. OK, that’s a lot. Fortunately, those barriers are coming down. Business process automation solutions are a dime a dozen in today’s enterprise softwaremarket, some with capabilities beneficial to the entire organisation and not just IT. Better, IT ops teams may even be using solutions with integrated automation right now and not even know it.
IT pros don’t need to return to school just to automate repetitive job tasks and regular trips to the coffee machine.Modern tools remove barriers and let admins focus on capturing their knowledge minus lots and lots of syntax. Nonetheless, I continue to promote the idea that all IT practitioners should develop “a sense of code” (https://orangematter.solarwinds.com/2021/02/03/anything-but-soft-the-tech-skills-youll-need-for-2021/). And no number of assistive tools can hide the fact that it would still be useful to obtain some measure of understanding in a language like Python, PowerShell, or Perl. Regardless of where they start, over time IT pros find they quickly begin fine-tuning using automation’s underlying details like functions, conditionals, and loops, no matter the technical environment.
The question many IT pros then ask is, why stop there? While becoming a so-called full-stack programmer is beyond what many technology practitioners envision for themselves, nevertheless a wealth of tutorials, primers, user groups, and online forums provide education on foundational programming structures and techniques. What’s missing is the “why,” which is exactly what IT pros can provide. Once we have a meaningful use-case, gaining the skills to automate it is simply a matter of persistence.
Bringing (some) joy back to your life
Some of the most helpful automation for operations can essentially be executed with scripts, using simple statements, conditionals, and looping. And while it sounds simple, if not simplistic, it’s also surprising how exploring, experimenting,and re-iterating on a piece of automation that does something useful and professionally (if not personally) meaningful is a journey that often creates delightfully unexpected sparks of joy.
When well done, automation brings benefits to the organisation, allowing IT pros to again demonstrate their adaptability in any circumstance. Before the pandemic, automation may have seemed more suspect, less relevant, and with low return for the time invested. Now, it’s becoming just one more tool to allow them to continue performing in their job, obtain new skills, experiment with software, and progress further in their careers. The experts in getting tech done are finding they can have more fun and get more technology managed with code.