It must have been at least five years ago, when puppet was getting popular, that I first ran into someone terrified of losing his job because of automation. I even wonder if the same happened before when cfengine came out, and history would suggest it probably did. However, what also history suggests is that resourceful and competent engineers will always have a job.
The devops movement, as heavily entrenched in automation as it is, seems to have stirred up the waters again and in the span of a couple months a spur of blog posts by worried-looking sysadmins have appeared culminating in this fantastic troll post Devops is ruining my craft:
this was a collection of servers I built and configured for our web farm. Just like beautiful snowflakes swirling in the winter’s breath, no two were exactly alike, but all were quite similar and whitish in color. But alas, I have not come here today to talk about my craft, but about a grave threat to it: DevOps.
Priceless. And honestly I almost shed a tear thinking of the days I sat there, looking at screenfuls of gcc output scrolling by.
On top of that devops has probably compounded the issue by looking more and more like an alternative job tile/profession to that one of the sysadmin. This is entirely misguided and I have yet to see someone even remotely supporting this point, but created the movement, created the antagonism and the fear. I’ve blogged before about devops in a job title and I still posit it’s a good thing, it’s a good qualifier to augment existing titles as there is per se no devops position or team. I’m trying to refine my thoughts on the matter in light of a discussion on the devops google group and some provoking points @lusis made, stay tuned for that.
But let’s get back to history and have a look at the last 15 years. Were you a sysadmin back then? Were bash and perl your primary weapons? We’ve come a long way since then and chances are today you are using some kind of configuration management tool and you no longer provision boxes from CD. And it’s likely you still have a job and so do most of, if not all, the people that were sysadmins with you back then. What has happened rather is that that job as we knew it has changed and that’s a good thing. Yes our machines look rather identical and not the beautiful snowflakes they did, but that’s probably given us back many hours of sleep a month.
But if that was not sufficient, just look at what development went through. In a very short time, developers went from punchcards to Rails and since then the number of programming jobs has only gone up. We have progressively added layers of abstractions to hide away complexity that was slowing us down and replaced it with scaffolding and contracts that make for faster and easier development so that we can better focus on the real goal: adding value to the business. And in the process we’ve actually added complexity, not removed it, objects are allocated and freed from memory even if most people don’t have to worry about it anymore, and on top of that there’s a new bunch of things that might go wrong, but ideally they won’t. In fact, most times they go so well that they allow us to do more than we used to be able to.
Always try to automate yourself out of the job
Over many years of interviews for sysadmin positions I’ve heard and said many times the following statement:
I always try to automate myself out of the job
Does that sound familiar? Have you said it yourself? Doesn’t it seem ironic that in a field scared of automation a sentence like that is so popular? And it is in fact so popular, and the phenomenon so widespread, that Tom Limoncelli even wrote a piece on it back in 2011 titled Automate? Will I lose my job?. Echoing Tom’s conclusions that sentence is wrong and maybe a good metaphor for this fear: you never managed to automate yourself out of the job because as soon as you had automated that one thing taking so much of your time you found something bigger and of greater value to the business to do.
I said it at the beginning and I will say it again: resourceful and competent engineers will always have a job. In fact, automation will just empower you to do more so you’re better off to accept it and evolve with it rather than to fear it.