Welcome Welcome to ADMIN Lead image: Lead Image © SergeiPopov, 123rf.com
Lead Image © SergeiPopov, 123rf.com

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Human

For many years, I've written about the plight of sys admins, about our bottom-feeding status, and about how we love our jobs so much that we'll take abuses dished out by employers, colleagues, and users. The only refuge we have is the computer world that we govern. Computers are our realms. In these realms, we are both ruler and serf. We rule, yet we are ruled by the systems themselves. However, system administration as we know it is about to change forever. Automation will replace us. It will replace us because we are human and because we are fallible.

I assert this change not merely in the poetic sense, but in the realistic one as well. We once used automated tasks because we were a lazy lot. We scripted repetitive tasks. We streamlined our systems so that, with a simple key sequence, they could work through a day's worth of mundane tasks unhindered by human intervention. Little did we realize that by making ourselves more efficient, we would place at risk those jobs we love so much. The risk of being replaced by our own handiwork is real.

It sounds like something out of a mid-twentieth century science fiction novel. A crafty system administrator creates an autonomous system that can heal itself, restart its own failed services, rebuild its broken parts, efficiently update itself, and even reboot itself when being overtaken by the zombie process apocalypse.

And, as you science fiction aficionados know, rarely do these works end on a happy note. Being plagued by offshore outsourcing for the past 15 years isn't enough. Even cheap labor is too expensive these days. Now, the ultimate commoditization of our work is well underway: automation.

The funny part of this story is that I've always embraced artificial intelligence, automation, and hands-off processing. I once built a LAMP application that never required maintenance. It was all built-in. After I created my automated masterpiece, it ran for 10 years without human interaction. It might still be running except that the systems it ran on have been decommissioned. When I first arrived upon the project, the group I worked in passed around Word and Excel documents for their monthly reporting efforts. I thought it was time to put everything online and streamline the whole operation. Shell scripts, PHP scripts, SQL scripts, cron jobs, and a few Perl scripts made it all possible. It ran so well that I never had to touch it again. I automated myself out of a job that was once very labor intensive and quite tedious.

Clever? Yes. Unclever? Also, yes. Fortunately, there was another position waiting for me in which I would repeat the whole process. What happened next was even funnier. I moved to a position in a group known as Automated Operations. By then, I had embraced the tedious, repetitive nature of some of my work. I'd learned my lesson. I still automated some of my processes, but I kept a few manual ones, too  – the ones I liked.

The problem is that I like automation. I do it without being asked, without being coerced, and without being worried that there will be no job waiting for me. I've never really automated myself completely out of a job, because someone has to automate the next thing, and the next, and so on.

I've heard it said that you can't automate everything. I think, however, that you can automate pretty much everything. Certainly, you can automate everything that requires a keystroke, a simple Yes/No decision, or a timed operation. However, I don't believe that you can entirely remove the human element. At some point, a human's hands, a human's eyes, and a human's mind will be needed to automate the next thing or to fix what's broken. I like automation. I'm a human that prefers to automate himself out of the mundane. I prefer to be ruler rather than serf. I prefer to be served. And, until someone figures out how to automate the process of automating processes, I'll always have a job.

Ken Hess * ADMIN Senior Editor