Will Automation Fill Gaps Left by the ‘Great Resignation’?

Between burnout, job-hopping and the ongoing pandemic, labor shortages will surely get worse before they get better, and automation is increasingly sought after as a way to mitigate the ripple effects of understaffed IT departments.

For DevOps, automation has several benefits, from freeing up employees to work on more constructive tasks to minimizing software bugs and technical debt.

However, starting off slow and learning how automation will help address staff shortages without complicating processes is a critical factor.

“There’s still a lot of teams that are struggling with far too many manual or repetitive tasks,” said Rich Lane, chief strategy officer at Netenrich, a digital IT and security operations company. “Obviously, trying to do your day job of delivering features and functionality into the wild can be challenging with the speed that business needs demand.”

Lane, a former senior research analyst at Forrester Research, pointed out that slowing down in the present to do foundational work that can lead to higher levels of automation in the future can be hard to sell to digital services stakeholders.

“And yet, without doing so, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet commitments in the event a team becomes shorthanded or delivery requirements increase,” he said.

Generalist or Specialist?

Cody Michaels, application security consultant at nVisium, said when it comes to hiring people for a DevOps environment, you have one of two options: You can hire someone with a wide range of knowledge that spans the entire process or you can hire someone with expertise in one core area like programming or deployment.

“At an individual level, a generalist will be better than an expert, however, a team of experts will outperform a team of generalists,” he said. “Not only can automation fill in gaps between an expert’s area of influence, but it can also serve as a permanent fixture on the team. As a result, the turnover rate won’t affect any automation so long as it’s implemented properly.”

From Lane’s perspective, the main areas DevOps teams should be looking to automate are continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD), IaC and AIOps-enabled incident management platforms.

“By taking the manual nature of day-to-day work off of DevOps engineers’ plates, they are freed to focus on digital transformation,” he said. “The number-one stumbling block is not starting with process.”

Lane noted unless you understand all the steps in a procedure that you’re trying to automate, it is very difficult to maximize the power of automation tools.

“Much of the process that is still adhered to today is outdated for the digital age,” he said. “Spend the time up front to map out what you hope to achieve with an automation project, what all the touchpoints are and how one can measure the quality of automation when it’s implemented.”

Michaels added that while the internet is flooded by companies shouting they have the “best” tools, that proclamation of “best” is going to be determined by budget and known languages.

“The top tools that I would recommend are Jenkins, Docker, Git and Jira, since these four play very well together with regard to automation,” he said.

Git, for example, has hooks that can trigger upon performing certain actions, like freshly submitted code, while Jenkins has automation as its middle name and it’s used in building, testing and deploying, which in turn facilitates CI/CD.

Meanwhile, Docker provides virtualization of operating systems and running applications in a secure manner in conjunction with containers.

“Lastly, Jira is one most don’t think about, but the platform has a lot of macros and filtering functionality that can update the work process automatically from events like code passing a test before it’s deployed, for instance,” he said.

Michaels said a couple of core considerations organizations need to make when approaching the idea of automation and AI are time as well as safety nets in place.

“Automation will take time to set up before you can benefit from it, but in the case of smaller teams, it won’t be too time-consuming to configure it all in one fell swoop,” he said. “But if you’re working with a lot of technical debt, unfortunately, it’s going to be payback time. If this is the case, my best advice would be to start small and not overhaul everything at once.”

Minor Automation Improvements Have Major Benefits

He said he thinks incremental improvement will be the best route for most organizations, and that even minor improvements will compound far faster than waiting a year to see if a redesign will work for you.

“As I mentioned previously, it’s imperative to have safety nets in place,” Michaels said. “Make sure you have a contingency plan if something goes wrong in the process to recover back to a working state. However, strictly speaking, everyone should make it a practice to have a recovery plan in their software development life cycle (SDLC).”

As the DevOps world moves into 2022, organizations choosing to embrace automation could find themselves in a win-win situation—for both developers and operations.

“The more automation takes over the ‘housekeeping’ items of the process, the more time will be freed up to improve the process as a whole,” Michaels said. “As a result, taking time to go back and clean up technical debt can now be set aside between sprints and maintenance.”

He pointed out that senior roles can tackle optimizing the architecture, which will ensure fewer bugs and a healthier work-life balance for all: Just imagine a world where developers can focus on perfecting their craft—instead of waiting hours or days for server reboots or disrupting their flow to update a ticket status.

“It really comes down to the fact that organizations can no longer make automation an afterthought,” Lane added.

He pointed out that given the difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff today, DevOps leaders must make their teams as efficient as possible—and automation can help achieve that goal.

“The number-one way to achieve this is applying as much intelligent automation throughout the IT environment as possible so that the highly-skilled engineers can focus on transforming the business,” Lane said.

Nathan Eddy

Nathan Eddy is a Berlin-based filmmaker and freelance journalist specializing in enterprise IT and security issues, health care IT and architecture.

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