The robots are taking over!

At least, that’s what many major observers of social, economic, and technological trends have been saying recently.

If their assessments are accurate, robots, algorithms, and other wonders of automation are already well on their way to replacing us inconsistent and unpredictable human beings in a wide variety of niches, from playing Connect4 to preparing your morning dose of caffeine.

So, should we be shaking in our boots about the automation revolution, worried we’ll all soon be out of jobs?

No.

In networking, the automation revolution is great news. Automation promises to eliminate the tedium and time investment in mundane tasks that, in bygone days, were a necessary part of a network admin’s job.

In fact, far from threatening your paycheck as an IT pro, the efficiencies that some of today’s networking tools make possible are the keys to excellent job performance and career advancement.

That’s because those tools can free you up to use the skills and brainpower that make you a truly unique asset for your employer, rather than pouring your time and mental energy into routine tasks.

It’s wise to embrace network IT automation software, not fear it. Not only will it help you shine at work, it should also make your job more interesting and less stressful.

Something’s stinky in the state of networking

Engineer Greg Ferro recently wrote about how SDN-based automation can make admins more valuable on the job —particularly by freeing them from the “messy, necessary and stinky” tasks that have traditionally been a part of their work routines. In his words:

toilet brushes

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What I like about SDN is that I will be doing activities that are valuable to the business. Configuring a VLAN is roughly equivalent to toilet cleaning, useless to revenue generation but messy, necessary and stinky. When I am valuable to the business, then I can get paid more, [get] more recognition and do more stuff. Today, networking is a problem because it’s hard, costly and unreliable so IT managers don’t want to waste time and money working on it.

SDN should solve the massive problems in networking. I would rather spend time analysing application performance, performing big data analysis on packet capture, [and] negotiating with vendors on new WAN designs. What about researching and learning new SDN stuff because you don’t have [to] submit change requests every day because change is automated and risk free?

Greg’s toilet analogy is blunt, but it drives home the point about how much time network admins typically spend on menial, lackluster tasks that pay few dividends for their careers or their companies.

(Greg’s not alone in comparing mundane networking tasks to jobs like cleaning toilets, by the way. Other writers have drawn similar analogies to the tedious work that cuts into productivity in the networking world, as well as in other industries. Kurt Bales has an entire blog that tips its hat to “network janitors,” for instance, while the New York Times has noted how “janitor work” undercuts the productivity of data scientists.)

Leveraging automation

But enough about how unpleasant it is to do networking tasks that could be easily automated. Let’s talk about how to overcome these hurdles to productivity.

In some ways, it’s hard to be optimistic that things will change at most organizations anytime soon. After all, as Auvik’s co-founder Alex Hoff noted in a blog post earlier this year, it’s going to be a while before the full benefits of SDN trickle down to the small or mid-sized business.

But SDN is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to automating your work. Plenty of other automation tools are readily available now, even if you lack a big IT budget.

For example, Auvik’s network management software can:

  • Automatically map your network and keep that map accurate in real-time
  • Complete an inventory of every device on your network, right down to serial number and software version
  • Document connection details between devices
  • Monitor and report on network status
  • Alert you to potential misconfigurations on your network

And that’s just for starters.

toy robot lifting pencil

Photo: Logan Ingalls, on Flickr

Don’t fear the machine

Some network pros are wary about software that automates much of what they do every day. After all, if a cloud-based app can do most of their job, isn’t that job in jeopardy?

But that’s not the right way to think about it. As long as you use the time that automation gives you to do things that distinguish yourself as a valuable employee, automation will be a vital asset to your career, not a threat.

It’s not hard to learn how to set up a VLAN or log network traffic. Anyone with a minimum of technical know-how could figure out basic jobs like these with a little bit of Googling.

In contrast, only skilled pros know how to plan for network growth, identify cost-optimized IT investment, and fortify the network against the ever-changing landscape of security threats. These are examples of skills that no software automation tools will acquire anytime soon. And they’re the type of work for which you can earn real accolades from colleagues and managers.

It’s a smart move — for both your career and your sanity — to embrace automation tools now.

Here’s how network software engineer Matt Oswalt puts it:

You may believe that holding on to manual process and stomping your feet whenever someone suggests removing you from your per-box CLI guarantees you job security, but the only thing it does is kill your organization’s (and in turn, your paycheck) ability to scale, and remain competitive.

To say it another way:

A tsunami is subsuming many traditional roles and the tasks and functions associated with them. Focus your efforts on doing what technology cannot. Automated processing, repetitive tasks, traditionally low wage jobs will be displaced by technology. Roles that involve creative and critical thinking, deep human relationships, and induce unique experiences will not. Look to solve problems that computers cannot.

There’s no denying the automation revolution is here, in networking as in many other fields. But it’s only a danger to your job if you let it become one.

Instead, make it a boost to your career by leveraging automation tools in ways that show your employer why — as I wrote earlier this spring — “you’re more important than ever.”