It’s no secret that companies are constantly trying to move toward automation, and it makes sense that employees, like sysadmins, get anxious when they’re told their jobs are being targeted for automation. You sysadmins shouldn’t take it personally, though — you’re not alone. There has never been a time where companies weren’t trying to automate more of their processes.
It’s easy to get nervous when you hear about software configuration management tools like Chef or Puppet offering to automate more of the work that you’re accustomed to managing yourself. When leadership starts getting excited at the thought of transitioning to a DevOps culture and using Chef to automate as much of the patching, updates, and installations as it can manage, sysadmins might naturally feel concerned.
“Is automation going to make my job disappear?”
There are a few myths surrounding automation, so let’s clear the air.
1. Your job isn’t in danger
All the things software configuration management tools boast that they’re capable of are only possible because you’re able to run the tools.
Take a look at Chef’s additional toolset called “Chef Automate”, which boasts having a steady deployment pipeline, ideal for applications, infrastructure, and automated testing. Sure, there are people in the company to whom that might sound really attractive. They might think that automation of those tasks makes it a fire & forget option. That anyone, from a developer to a sales rep, could come up with an application update and have it propagated within minutes. But that’s obviously not the case.
The skills of software configuration management aren’t easy to come by, and it’s not easy to develop them. No software could replace what you know and how you do it. What it can do is make all of what you’re already doing that much easier. If your shop is already responsible for deploying infrastructure upgrades, automation of that capability doesn’t render you useless, it means that you become responsible for monitoring that automation.
Consider owning a car. With a car, you automate getting to work. Before cars: you walked. With automation, you don’t have to get tired feet or take several hours to get to work! Automation of software configuration management is like that: you won’t have to walk anymore, you can drive to where you’re going.
2. Someone has to maintain the car
Someone will have to drive that car! Automating the trip to work didn’t eliminate the need to get to work, it simplified the process for getting there and shortened the overall requirement. But a skilled operator (in fact, a more skilled operator) is still needed to get from home to work.
For example, Chef can also provide high-level health information about the whole estate. Automation gets rid of the need to manually search out, identify, and record the data about nodes and servers — no more crawling through reams of data to update the quarterly report. Now everything that you need is found for you — but what it doesn’t do is explain it. The software can only identify data you tell it to find, but it can’t understand it, and it certainly can’t explain it.
Automation software might enable someone to simply select an option that verifies nodes are checking in successfully, but what about when one of them doesn’t? Now the real work begins: Fixing the node that got identified thanks to automation. You don’t have to do the mundane legwork of identifying and diagnosing failures, instead, you can apply the IT skills you’ve got to get into the actual work of resolving, contextualizing and handling the issue (and then taking the credit for it).
3. The car might not have cruise control
Automation is a double-edged sword for sysadmins and techs. We all know the comfort of repetitive, mundane jobs. Manual patching, configuration updates, and service installations for every server can take a long time! And wouldn’t it be a shame if it took all day to figure out what had gone wrong while disappearing into the racks?
Automation tends to line up all our tasks in a row so we can knock them all out. But it also means that the problems are more quickly identified and solutions are better-defined. That leaves out a lot of wiggle room.
Not needing to manually configure or install OS updates means that all the time you were spending walking row after row you can now use to come up with better security configurations — or finally tackle the code review & approval that’s on the to-do. Turning over mundane tasks to automation frees up hard, clever workers to prove their worth and test their mettle. That should be exciting!
Automation means change, that much is guaranteed. What it doesn’t mean is anything bad for you. As a skilled sysadmin, your position won’t become less valuable with automation – it’ll become more valuable. Automation guarantees that your company can do more with the network and infrastructure that it has, and you’ll be freed up to do more of it. Automation is a rising tide, and you’d be wise to get a boat and ride this one out.