Looking at the kinds of work IT people do, there are two broad buckets. First, there's new work: the kind of work that has tangible value, either for the end customer or for the IT systems you operate and manage. This is the creative work IT people to do create new software, new automation, or new infrastructure. It’s work coming from the fingers of a craftsmen. It takes knowledge, experience, and creativity to create something novel and new. It's important to realize that this type of proactive work is impossible to automate. Consider the parallel to the manual labor artists and designers do to create something new; it's just not something a computer can generate or do for us.
Second, there's re-work and toil. These kinds of reactive work are unwanted. Re-work needs to be done to correct quality issues in work done earlier, like fixing bugs in software, improving faulty automation code, and mitigating and resolving incidents on production. This also includes customer support work after incidents and fixing technical debt due to bad decisions in the past, or badly managing the software lifecycle. This leads to technical debt, outdated software, or systems and architectures that haven't been adapted to new ways of work, scalability, or performance requirements. For IT ops, physical machines, snowflake virtual machines, and on-premises productivity systems (like email, document management, or collaboration tools) are good examples.
How Do Tools Fit In?
Now that we understand the types of work we do, we can see where automation tools come in. They take away re-work and toil. A well-designed toolchain frees up software and infrastructure engineers to spend more time on net-new work, like new projects, new features, or improvements to architecture, systems, and automation. In other words: the more time you spend improving your systems, the better they'll get. Tools help you break the cycle of spending too much time fixing things that broke and not preventing incidents in the first place. Automation tooling helps remove time spent on repetitive tasks that go through the same process each time.
By automating, you're creating a representation of the process in code, which leads to consistent results each time. It lowers the variation of going through a process manually with checklists, which invariably leads to a slightly different process with unpredictable outcomes. It's easy to improve the automation code each time, which lowers the amount of re-work and faults each time you improve the code. See how automating breaks the vicious circle? Instead, the circle goes up and up and up with each improvement.
A proper toolchain increases engineering productivity, which in turn leads to more, better, and quicker improvements, a lower failure rate of those improvements, and a quicker time to resolving any issues.
How Do I Know If Work Is a Candidate for Automation?
With Value Stream Mapping, a LEAN methodology. This is a way of visualizing the flow of work through a process from start to finish. Advanced mappings include red and green labels for each step, identifying customer value, much like the new work and re-work we talked about earlier. Good candidates include anything that follows a fixed process or can be expressed as code.
It's easy to do a VSM yourself. Start with a large horizontal piece of paper or Post-It notes on a wall, and write down all the steps chronologically. Put them from left to right. Add context to each step, labeling each with green for new work or red for toil. If you're on a roll, you can even add lead time and takt time to visualize bottlenecks in time.
See a bunch of red steps close to each other? Those are prime candidates for automation.
Some examples are:
If a piece of software is always tested for security vulnerabilities
If you make changes to your infrastructure
If you test and release a piece of new software using a fixed process
If you create a new user using a manual checklist
If you have a list of standard changes that can go to production after checking with the requirements of the standard change
But What Tools Do I Choose?
While the market for automation tooling has exploded immensely, there's some great resources to help you see the trees through the forest.
First and foremost: keep it simple. If you use a Microsoft stack, use Microsoft tools for automation. Use the tool closest to the thing you're automating. Stay within your ecosystem as a starting point. Don't worry about a tool that encompasses all the technology stacks you have.
Look at what the popular kids are doing. They're usually doing it for a reason, and tooling tends to come in generations. Configuration management from three generations ago is completely different than modern infrastructure-as-code tools, even if they do the same basic thing.
Happy hunting for the tools in your toolchain! In the next post, I'll discuss a problem many practitioners have after their first couple of successful automation projects: tool sprawl. How do you manage the tools that manage your infrastructure? Did we just shift the problem from one system to another? A toolchain is supposed to simplify your work, not make it more complex. How do you stay productive and not be overloaded with the management of the toolchain itself? We'll look at integrating the different tools to keep the toolchain agile as well as balancing the number of tools.
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