From time to time, especially with the introduction of some new software, tool, or paradigm that further blurs any distinction between development and operations tasks, we hear folks ask questions to the effect of “is there a future for operators?” or “do we need to focus on operations?” Folks, I’m here to tell you the simple answer is that operations, as a practice, ain’t goin’ nowhere.
A Humble Anecdote
I just wanted to clean out my gutters…
It’s been raining a lot these past few weeks. And since I live in a wooded area, it’s common that my gutters can clog with leaves so that when it rains hard, water spills over and can wear away soil. This is unsightly around flower beds and worrying around foundations. I had noticed some erosion in be backyard and during a break from the rain decided to perform some impromptu gutter cleaning. For that, I needed my ladder, stored in the garage.
In the early Spring I’d done some much-needed cleaning in the garage, clearing out junk, organizing all my tools, and generally making everything very accessible. I consciously decided that accessibility was a key factor in the design of my garage system (yes, I think of organizing my garage in terms of system thinking/design). In short, a place for everything and everything in its place. A major component of the garage’s accessibility was ensuring open floor space so that I could easily get to a tool on a shelf, hanging from a wall, or on the floor (like the lawnmower).
Except now, when all I wanted was the ladder, I had to spend 30 minutes organizing the garage, clearing errant items and space, before I could get to it. In retrospect, however, the clutter I had to pass was inevitable. You see, the same design principle that made the garage originally an organizer’s dream (the passable floor space) was at the same time an affordance. The open area plus the mix of time, a family (including three dogs), and myriad decisions that made sense in-the-moment, contributed to my inability to simply extract my ladder and go about the business of de-mucking my gutters. That affordance and the natural emergent behavior inherent in any system contributed to the current messy state of my garage and, initially, prevented me from getting on with my work. It was entropy in action.
And it is for entropy, dear reader, that operations will always exist. When we design systems, we do so with the knowledge we have available at the time. The problem statement we’ve defined; the tools and practices we’re familiar with; assumptions we’ve made; the state of the world in which we start and eventually deploy into. These are all properties of the systems we build. Further, those same properties are what we rely on to operate those systems. We compare the current state of a system (as much as we can derive) against those properties to determine if it’s working within expected bounds.
However, the affordances we’ve built in (intentionally or otherwise), the emergent behavior of those systems (which may present additional, unexpected affordances), and general entropy mean that someone has to keep an eye on things. To date, we’ve not consistently proven we’re good at prediction, so it requires humans to continually introspect systems and keep them running in the face of an always changing environment.
Charity Majors recently summed this idea up nicely:
ops still exists, ops will always exist... at the bleeding edge of what barely works and is not well understood, or requires human judgment. https://t.co/rWxytNpnsm— Charity Majors (@mipsytipsy) June 9, 2018
And so operations will always require humans. When a system appears to no longer function within expected bounds, a flesh-and-blood person needs to make a decision about how to address it. In doing so, that person becomes a part of the system. If the decision is to correct or amend the state of the system, it can be said that the person is introducing order into it. Most importantly, the human is operating as an agent applying negative entropy, or negentropy. We, the operators, organize, structure, and restore functionality to a system.
That’s it, plain and simple.
Postscript: What About the Singularity?
If you think AI is gonna solve every operational problem, I promise you that even when the robots take over they’ll be walking around, scratching their metal heads, muttering:
Beep bOOp BEEP… who’s gonna clean up all this shit?!
And they’ll spin up whole factories that pump out OpsBots to manage it all.