I have been working in the realm of “automation” – specifically data center automation – for several years.
Merriam-Webster defines “automating” thusly:
- to operate by automation
- to convert to largely automatic operation <automate a process>
Notice the subtle difference with M-W’s definition of “automation“:
- the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically
- the state of being operated automatically
- automatically controlled operation of an apparatus, process, or system by mechanical or electronic devices that take the place of human labor
These words tend to be used interchangeably – but they are different. Most of the customers I have worked with think they are “doing automation”, when in actuality they are only barely starting to “automate”.
What do I mean by this?
Most customers that bring automation tools in-house (whether simple
cron jobs or complex tools like HPSA) take their current, manual processes and merely write wrappers around them to make them “automatic”. That is the first step of automation – but it’s only the first step.
Too many people try to take new tools and make them fit their current processes, procedures, and policies – rather than seeing what policies, procedures, and processes are either made redundant by the new tools, or can be improved, shortened, or – wait for it – automated!
Think of a physical example – you’re a Shaker Cabinetmaker in the late 1800s. You’re making end tables. Cutting dovetails with a dovetail saw. Sanding with a block and sandpaper. Cutting pieces to size by hand. Drilling mortises and cutting tenons with a manual auger and small saw. Lathing on a treadle-powered lathe.
Jump forward 100 years. You’re WGBH in Boston wanting to come up with a how-to program to air weekly. You find a fellow named Norm Abram, and pay him to do the show. You put New Yankee Workshop on TV for years. Norm visits places like Hancock Shaker Village for inspiration. But Norm doesn’t use loads of hand tools – he uses radial arm saws, drill presses, table saws, routers, joiners, etc. Why? Because he wants to make a prototype or three in a few days. And then wants to film a show in two (or occasionally longer for big projects) and be able to give you the confidence, along with a set of measured drawings, that you could, more-or-less, replicate what he did in your own home.
Which approach is better? Neither – they both yield end tables. Which approach is more repeatable – especially by someone with little experience? That’d be Norm’s method: the automated method. But the New Yankee Workshop is only slightly down the road of automating the entire process.
Automation (in the furniture world, at least) is found at Ikea. Thousands of identical Ingos and Karls roll out the door every year. Produced by automated machinery.
The job of the Information Technologist has a great deal of art to it – but it’s also a science: at the core of everything that a computer does is logic (perhaps poor logic, but logic nonetheless). Everyone in information technology (especially, though it’s applicable to myriad other industries) should be striving to make themselves replaceable – because no one is irreplaceable. I’ve seen it come true in scores of settings: the person who makes themselves “irreplaceable” never gets promoted, and is eventually replaced by someone else: either management removes him or finds a way around him, or he leaves the organization.
Therefore, preemptively make yourself replaceable. This was Ken Moellman’s campaign when he ran for State Treasurer in KY: to eliminate the very job he was running for.
There’s a secret to making yourself replaceable – and that is that when you can show that you’re replaceable, especially in the world I work in, you tend to be promoted. You also tend to grow because you’re learning more. Because you learn more and grow, you become more valuable. Because you become more valuable, you can move up the chain as you like.
Do artisan works still have a market? Of course – go look at any “artsy” type store that showcases “local craftsmen” in almost any part of the country: they’re offering their hard work for your consideration … at a hard price.
Is the artisan chair fundamentally any better than the Ikea chair? Maybe, maybe not. It sure looks better. But it’s not as repeatable.
And repeatable tasks get automated because if you have to do it twice, you need to write it down. And if you have to do it more than twice, you need a process anyone can follow. But processes are always open for refinement and replacement. The process to get a piece of lumber from a tree is not completely dissimilar to day from how we did it before the advent of the sawmill – but with laser-guided blades, the sawmill of 2013 can optimize lumber out of a log in a way very very few people ever could .. and can cut the log into its constituent boards faster than any person.
The process for manually provisioning a RHEL server is pretty simple – but shortly after introducing Anaconda, Red Hat introduced the kickstart (modeled after jumpstart). Microsoft, likewise, has
unattend.xml (for either the DOS or WinPE methods of installing). And SuSE, HPUX, and AIX have their systems (AutoYaST, Ignite, and NIM).
Why do these tools exist? It’s so administrators can rapidly deploy machines without having to do a lot of extra setup work by hand. The same can be asked for why do chainsaws, table saws, and circular saws exist? It’s so you can cut wood more rapidly and more repeatably than by hand. You can fell a tree with an axe. You can fell a tree with a saw. But for a single person, felling a tree with a chainsaw is best. Or you can use a Tiger Cat.
The first step of automating needs to be building wrappers to reliably repeat manual processes.
The second, and far more important, step in the paradigm shift from manual methods to automation, is to systematically go through all of your processes, procedures, and policies and see what can be refined, what can be replaced, and, most importantly, what can be removed.
What legacy activities are you doing that should be eliminated, updated, or cleaned-up?