If automation is the future, what does it mean for IT professionals?
In the first installment of this series, we discussed large-scale data breaches in all areas of U.S. business and the fact that despite the best efforts of security personnel, there seems to be no end in sight to the cybersecurity concerns.
Installment number two brought a conversation with Robert Reeves, co-founder and CTO of Datical, who previously Phurnace Software in 2005, and invented and created the flagship product, Phurnace Deliver, which provides middleware infrastructure management to multiple Fortune 500 companies. When BMC Software acquired Phurnace in 2009, Reeves served as Chief Architect and lead worldwide technology evangelism.
Reeves discussed human evolution and how it’s made our species a poor match for operation of computer systems. Human evolution has led to a propensity for distraction, and a desire for satisfaction in the quickest means possible. “That is the exact opposite of what we need for computer systems,” he continued. “Rote, repetitive tasks are required, and humans are very bad at those. All sorts of things can prevent us from completing such tasks.”
Reeves frankly admitted that his goal in system creation has always been to automate himself out of a job, a strategy that while perhaps a best practice for operating a computer system is devastating news to a generation of IT professionals who would find themselves replaced by automated systems that can promise efficiency and accuracy no human can deliver. What does Reeves’ vision of the future hold for these professionals displaced from their database domain?
“Humans overestimate their abilities to make mistakes,” said Reeves, “or even worse, they underestimate the abilities of database professionals and decide there is no need for them. They think they don’t need a security team because they haven’t had a breach in 2-3 years.”
Reeves called this concept ‘proving a negative’—like asking someone to prove that aliens do not exist. “Good luck!” he offered. “We’re saying, ‘hey, this hasn’t been a problem—can you prove that you’re the reason why (it hasn’t been a problem)? Or on the flip side, they’ll say ‘well, something bad, like a breach, happened—you are the cause of it!’
“In reality, because the professionals are there, the breaches are muted—they’re not as bad as they could have been.”
Reeves compares this to a mentality similar to a township that fires its police force after realizing crime is low. “Maybe crime is low BECAUSE of the cops?” he offered. “But I don’t want to debate criminal justice—I’m saying when you get C-suite professionals together, looking at spreadsheets, and they start determining where to cut costs. The thinking is there haven’t been any data issues or breaches—why do we even have a security team? What are these guys good for? What’s the worst that could happen?”
Of course, all too often they find out the answer to that last question the hard way—but still, the problem persists. “People start believing their own press,” said Reeves. “I fight this battle every day. I could sit here and say ‘hey, you’re interviewing me for your article—I must be a business genius! Nope. You’re only human. Ancient Romans had some guy whisper in the ears of Caesar and his generals ‘You are only human. Remember, you are mortal’ just so their successes wouldn’t go to their heads. We need that in the C-suite over at Equifax.”
In the end, Reeves believes while computers are better suited to many operations than humans, he also believes that automation replaces tasks—not people. “I have made a career out of creating automation software,” he said. “Nobody gets fired because of my software. But they do get promotions, more responsibility, a higher quality of life. They get to do the cool stuff they want to do—the stuff that made them want to go into IT and software in the first place. Bringing in automation doesn’t mean firing people.”
Software is a creative process, and automation of tasks frees up your software and IT people to be creative, to brainstorm and try out new concepts. “We need humans for that, and we need to remove those repetitive tasks to make people available to come up with these new, untested but high-potential, creative ideas and solutions that no one has thought of. And once we create these processes, let’s have the computers take over so we can figure out the next thing.”
All you need for proof are simple numbers or statistics. Automation keeps increasing, but so does the number of available jobs in IT. “Amazing, huh?” asked Reeves. “We would not have concepts of machine learning or artificial intelligence, virtual reality… if we hadn’t solved the problem of automating the process of building a webpage. If everybody was still a webmaster, we wouldn’t have these new forms of technology. But when’s the last time you met someone with the tile ‘Webmaster’?”
The question that entrepreneurs like Reeves ask themselves every day is ‘what’s next?’ It’s the question that creates the lifeblood of his industry, and the race to be the one to answer it is the end goal.
“It’ll probably be a concept from a creative IT worker who has the time to come up with an idea,” he summarized. “Automation enhances our lives by freeing us up to do other stuff. What washing machines, dishwashers, etc. did for the American home, automation can do that for the workplace. It leads to good things.”
From a security angle, of course, human error is still a factor. “How many times do we write an email or anything, and end up going back and correcting our mistakes?” he asked. “But spell check didn’t destroy the English language—it made us better writers, because now we can concentrate on concepts and ideas rather than proofreading.”
“Automation doesn’t just avoid the bad stuff. It helps us to attain the good things.”