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Don’t fear the robot: How to overcome automation anxiety

15 Mar 2019

Article by SolarWinds head geek Leon Adato

Automation anxiety can affect both developers and IT ops pros. It worries even those with decades of expertise and seniority under their belts. And it’s not, despite what executive rhetoric might say, entirely unjustified. But there are two sure-fire ways to overcome that anxiety: a shift in perspective and a willingness to get uncomfortable.

A shift in perspective: Back to basics

By my reckoning, automation anxiety stems from a deeper fear of not being able to fulfil your purpose. For IT ops, automation heralds a day when we won’t need people to run maintenance, manage resources, or troubleshoot issues—when the fundamentals of ops no longer require a human to operate them. Developers may have an advantage over IT ops because they’ve been automating things from day one—that’s what code does, after all. But when a machine or an app starts to take over that thing they do, and do well, and get handsomely compensated for… that’s a blow to professional pride and self-worth, no matter how confident you are.

That changes, however, when you take a closer look at the actual purpose of both disciplines. A tech pro’s real job isn’t to patch servers or manage clouds. At its core, it involves finding efficient and elegant technical solutions that help the business do things better. One of our Head Geeks put it nicely by saying, “If I write a config more than twice, I’m going to script it—because life’s too short.” In fact, one could argue that tech pros do their jobs better when they embrace automation: using ticket histories to identify recurring technical issues, devising scripts or workflows that automatically take care of them, and using that extra breathing space to get down to the root of the problem so it never happens again.

For developers, that purpose should be even more obvious. No dev or coder ever went into programming thinking, “I hope I get to spend 80% of my time slogging through meaningless code changes with no comments to guide me, trying to figure out where someone forgot a semicolon.” A developer’s true purpose is to create—to come up with new ideas and turn them into viable products or services that benefit both end users and the bottom line. Automating the tasks that get in the way of that, no matter how much time or effort developers have spent learning to do them, can only help accomplish that core drive.

In other words, the best fix for automation anxiety is to get back to basics: for developers and tech pros alike to remember why they do what they do, instead of worrying about not being able to do it anymore. With that refreshed perspective, however, come some challenges—namely, where to invest their energies in an automated world.

Get uncomfortable: Working with other humans

The more automated IT environments become, the more time developers and tech pros will have to spend dealing with other people. For some, that’s potentially a greater source of anxiety than having robots render you redundant. But they’ll find that by doing so, they can better fulfil their professional purpose, and perhaps even find some unexpected sources of personal fulfilment.

For developers, it’s simple: find out what people want. As automation takes over the drudgery of maintaining and fixing code, coders have a responsibility to use that newfound time to better understand the needs, objectives, and habits of those who use their creations. Yes, talking to real live people, who have emotions and opinions, is hard. But doing so remains the only solid way to know what’s working and what’s not—and to use that knowledge to develop apps that better serve those people. 

The new challenge for tech pros is to communicate better—to tell a more convincing and compelling narrative about the value they can bring to their business. To a certain extent, that means translating technical metrics, like “3,000 disk alerts,” into language that non-technical people understand, like “$120K in staff time”—and showcasing the solutions, especially those involving automation management, in that same language. For tech pros, whose language of fluency is technical jargon, speaking to normal humans may prove a source of immense discomfort. The more they can do this, the more IT leads will find themselves gaining the support of business leaders, and being given a seat at the table on matters of future technology direction.

To misquote the infamous Avenue Q song, everyone’s a little bit anxious (of automation) sometimes. And it’s true that a more automated IT environment will bring its share of discomfort to developers and IT ops alike. The best thing those in the technology professions can do, however, is remembering why they do their jobs in the first place, then refocus on that purpose and reintegrate with the rest of humanity to accomplish it more effectively. In the words of a much older satire: all you can do is look on the bright side of life.

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