IT Operations and button-pushing

The fine folks at Nodeable gave me an informal introductory briefing today; they’ve got a pretty cool concept for a cloud-oriented monitoring and management SaaS-based tool that’s aimed at DevOps.

I’ve been having stray thoughts on DevOps and the future of IT Operations in the couple of hours that have passed since then, and reflecting on the following problem:

At an awful lot of companies, IT Operations, especially lower-level folks, are button-pushing monkeys — specifically, they are people who know how to use the vendor-supplied GUI to perform particular tasks. They may know the vendor-recommended ways to do things with a particular bit of hardware or software. But only a few of them have architect-level knowledge, the deep understanding of the esoterica of systems and how this stuff is actually built and engineered. (Some of this is a reflection of education; a lot of IT Operations people don’t come from a computer science background, but have what they’ve needed to know on the job.)

Today’s DevOps person is likely to have a skillset that we used to call systems programming. They understand systems architecture, they understand operating systems, they can write system-level code, including the scripting necessary for automation. The programmatic access to infrastructure exemplified by cloud IaaS providers has moved this up a layer of abstraction, so that you don’t have to be a deep-voodoo guy to do this kind of thing.

We’re moving towards a world where you have really low-level button-pushers — possibly where the button-pushing is so simple that you don’t need a specialist to do it any longer, anyone reasonably technical can do it — and senior architects whoo design things, and systems programmers who automate things. Whether those systems programmers work in application development and are “DevOps”, or whether those systems programmers work in IT Operations and just happen to be systems guys who program (mostly scripting), doesn’t really matter — the era of the button-pusher is drawing towards its close either way, at least for organizations who are going to efficiently increase IT Operations efficiency.

I want to share a story. It is, in some ways, a story about cruelty and unprofessionalism, but it’s funny in its own way.

About fifteen years ago, I was working as an engineer at Digex (the first real managed hosting company). We had a pretty highly skilled group of engineers there, and we never did anything using a GUI. We had hundreds of customers on dedicated Sun servers, and you’d either SSH into the systems or, in a pinch, go to the data center and log in on console. We were also the kind of people who would fix issues by making kernel modifications — for instance, the day that the SYN flood attack showed up, a bunch of customers went down hard, meaning that we could not afford to wait for Sun to come up with a patch, since we had customer SLAs to meet, so one of our security engineers rewrote the kernel’s queueing code for TCP accepts.

We were without a manager for some time, and they finally hired a guy who was supposedly a great Sun sysadmin. He didn’t actually get a technical interview, but he had a good work history of completed projects and happy teams and so forth. He was supposed to be both the manager and the technical lead for the team.

The problem was that he had no idea how to do anything that wasn’t in Sun’s administrator GUI. He didn’t even know how to attach a console cable to a server, much less log in remotely to a system. Since we did absolutely nothing with a GUI, this was a big problem. An even bigger problem was that he didn’t understand anything about the underlying technologies we were supporting. If he had a problem, he was used to calling Sun and having them tell him what to do. This, clearly, is a big problem in a managed hosting environment where you’re the first line of support for your customers, who may do arbitrary wacky things.

He also worked a nine-to-five day at a startup where engineers routinely spent sixteen hours at work. His team, and the other engineers at the company, had nothing but contempt for him. And one night, having dinner at 10 pm as a break before going right back into work, someone had an idea.

“Let’s recompile his kernel without mouse support.” (Like all the engineers, he had a Sun workstation at his desk.)

And so when he came to work the next morning, his mouse didn’t work — and every trace of the intrusion had been covered, thanks to the complicity of one of the security engineers.

Someone who had an idea of what he was doing wouldn’t have been phazed; they’d have verified the mouse wasn’t working, then done an L1-A to put the workstation into PROM mode, and easily done troubleshooting from there (although admittedly, nobody thinks, “I wonder if somebody recompiled my kernel without mouse support after I went home last night”). This poor guy couldn’t do anything other than pick up his mouse to make sure the underside hadn’t gotten dirty. It turned out that he had no idea how to do anything with the workstation if he couldn’t log in via the GUI.

It proved to be a remarkably effective demonstration to management that this guy was a yahoo and needed to be fired. (Fortunately, there were plenty of suspect engineers, and management never found out who was responsible. Earl Galleher, who ran that part of the business at the time, and is the chairman at Basho now, probably still wonders… It wasn’t me, Earl.)

But it makes me wonder what is the future of all the GUI masters in IT Operations, because the world is evolving to be more like the teams that I had before I came to Gartner — systems programmers with strong systems and operations skills, who could also code.

DevOps: Now you know how to deal with the IT Operations guy who can only use a GUI…


Posted on November 9, 2011, in Industry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Just a Guy With an Opinion

    If a problem can be fixed by the lower paid “monkey” who can click, click, click, there’s little justification for the higher paid “command-liner”, except in times like you mentioned above. How often is that, though? Daily IT operations are getting easier – almost everything is GUI-fied, but most importantly, reliability of IT infrastructures have increased to the point that fewer support people are needed. That, rather than GUI ease of use is why you’re going to see a decline in the need for newbie admins.


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