Rise of the IT Machines

Why automation won’t cost you your job – unless you let it.

I was recently hanging out with a client and one of my teammates Tige Phillips talking about some new IT automations that we are envisioning to lay over the top of a Cisco ACI Network Platform. ACI stands for Application Centric Networking and is a modern and much more efficient and effective way to manage a data center network. With ACI, rather than people doing advanced configurations during installation and ongoing management,  policies are programmed and the device architecture manages the code and configs during installation and ongoing management.  Policies can be changed (rather than CLI lines of coded commands) and the entire network responds. The efficiency and impact of this approach over the old way of Visio designs, spreadsheets and CLI based installations is dramatic.  One downside, though, is a perceived threat to a network engineer’s job stability because many of the skills that they gained during the education and training they invested big dollars in are being replaced by code. This thought is fundamentally no different than the concerns that automotive workers had when the first robots started appearing on the factory floor. Robots don’t sleep, and they don’t need expensive health insurance, pensions and paid time off.

The automation we were envisioning in this particular business case gets more interesting. Beyond a plethora of configurations being set by software instead of humans, we use the built in REST API in the ACI network to integrate with other API enabled  management and orchestration tools and then discuss combining those with IGNW custom software to allow applications to manage their own builds and literally thousands of lines of configurations – all dynamically.  With this build the applications would dynamically request, build and then change the infrastructure in response to all kinds of things that humans used to have to manage: “Build me a new VLAN, change it, tear it down.” Or, “Manage my reusable code and configs in an online repo, then deploy new nodes automatically when they come online. Deploy added security in response to threats. Test performance ahead of peak holiday hours and change all of my network setting across all devices in seconds rather than days, add an entire new data center. Do all of this now, don’t sleep, don’t eat. Do all this, automatically, without human intervention.” Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov are watching in amazement as their fictional worlds become reality.

As the front end representative of our business, I have heard the familiar objections first-hand to automations:  “What if your automations are broken”,  “Automations could be misconfigured”, “this couldn’t possibly work” and even “I am not betting my job on this.”  The reality is quite the opposite. We MUST bet our businesses on efficiencies and competitive advantages every day, or we may not be working at all.

By way of example,  I read an article in The Economist regarding the phenomenon of Automation Anxiety. The article discusses the roots of the fears and why they are likely unreasonable. When computers and robots started to appear in industry on factory floors in the 60’s, President John F. Kennedy declared that the major domestic challenge of the time would be to “maintain full employment at a time when automation is replacing men.”  The advent of personal computers in the 1980s provoked further hand-wringing over potential job losses.

But almost always in the past, on a macro level, technology and innovation have created far more jobs than they have destroyed.  This is because humans are inferior to machines when it comes to repetitive tasks, but are extremely more effective at abstract thinking. “The way automation works in practice,” explains David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is so that as things can be done more quickly or cheaply, this increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated, or are unable to be performed by a machine.”

One example of this is when assembly lines appeared in the industrial revolution, these were the first waves of automation. Cars that were bolted together by hand suddenly were moving off the line at warp speed, and dramatically more affordable – making more demand for even more cars. Another example of this given in the Economist article is that in the 80’s and 90’s,  automated teller machines (ATMs) were foretold to spell doom for bank tellers by taking over their routine tasks, and indeed in America their average number fell by 35-40 % per branch. But that reduced the cost of running a bank branch, allowing banks to open more branches in response to customer demand. The number of urban bank branches rose by 43% over the same period, so the total number of employees actually increased significantly. Rather than destroying jobs, ATMs changed bank employees’ work mix, away from routine tasks and towards things like sales and customer service that machines could not do.

“The same pattern appears in almost every modern industry after the invention of computers and information technology,” says James Bessen, an economist at the Boston University School of Law.  Rather than destroying jobs, automation redefines them, and in ways that reduce costs and boost demand. In a recent analysis of the American workforce between 1982 and 2012, he found that employment grew significantly faster in occupations (for example, graphic design) that made more use of computers, as automation sped up one aspect of a job, enabling workers to do the other parts better. The net effect was that more computer-intensive jobs within an industry displaced less computer-intensive ones.  Only manufacturing jobs expanded more slowly than the workforce did over the period of study, “but that had more to do with business cycles and offshoring to China than with technology,” Bessen states.

Later in the conversation with the client, my partner Tige said something to the customer that I thought was quite brilliant  because it was as simple as it was true:  “The wall of learning automations and leveraging it to better your career is steep, but not high.”  As a networking subject matter expert, an engineer can either be the keeper of the automation, or a be a victim of it. That engineer WILL stay in his newly defined job, and will be able to be far more effective and innovative for the business than he would be fixing daily problems behind the console if he or she learns to embrace the new paradigm and trains themselves to be the subject matter expert in their business. This strategy creates business leverage that in turn creates more demand for people/jobs. The other obvious benefit is that the organization will save significant money on IT operations in the future, allowing it to invest more in its growth and sustainability.

As in the industrial robot revolution in the 80s and 90s, automation technologies in IT are here to stay, and will become more and more mainstream. As AI and machine learning become more ingrained into dynamically managing the automations, things that people will do inside of IT will continue to morph. Many IT jobs that exist today will no longer be relevant, but that doesn’t mean people won’t be working in IT. The key to relevance is to stay on top of the automations, and be the agent and implementer of change. For our part at IGNW, having  practices in full stack IT automation, orchestration, system integration, DevOps and Hybrid IT, and also staffing the people who do this contemporary work give us plenty of ways to be impactful to our clients. Integrating our clients’ teams INTO the automation project via an Agile fashion is a key to their success (and ours).

For my IT friends, embrace automation quickly and be a champion of it, and prepare to be amazed at what you can accomplish for your organization and your own career.