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September 17, 2018

How Charming is Laziness?

Long time ago, while I was still a student at the PolyTechnic in Enschede, The Netherlands, I would justify my choice to study computer science, by proclaiming that laziness leads to efficiency. Which of course makes no sense I now know, because it leads to effectiveness. Penny-pinching leads to efficiency. You can read all about it in this post Perish or Survive, or being Efficient vs being Effective. But there's this little concept that results in more efficiency and laziness as well. It's therefore a charm. It is called automation and closely related to that third time.

Third Time Is Automated Principle

One of the key principles at Amazon AWS is that everything must be automated. It's not just that everything should be automatable, but it should be automated.
Whether or not it's an urban legend, but word has it that when you create something that requires manual action, you're out looking for a new job. For a company like Amazon AWS it is clear why automation is such a huge thing. And it is clear as well why they have such focus on API's. API's are how automation across the board is facilitated. But most companies are not Amazon or any of the other cloud providers. Most of you my dear readers are more likely to run your systems on Amazon AWS, Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure, then run those applications for your customers. Probably, your IT landscape is in size not even close to Amazon. Probably comparing to Amazon AWS as the Netherlands compares to the rest of the EU. In most if not all of the dimensions you can think of.
Arguably, the principle of "Automate Everything" doesn't apply to you. I'll leave it up to you to think of one or more arguments why automation is not something you should hold dearly.

Challenge to you: put in the comments a good reason why you think automation is not necessarily needed. I'll make an effort to counter your argumentation as a reply to your comment.
But read on first.

The benefits of automating processes are many. Irrespective of the kind of processes. An automated process is infinitely more likely to be repeatable than any manual process. This results in higher quality since errors will either be made consistently, and can be fixed, or will consistently not occur at all. How compelling is that?
Although the automated and manual version of a process might take the same amount of time to be executed, the automated process allows a person to work concurrently on something else that cannot be automated. And automated processes do not rely on the availability of a specialist to execute the process. So automation makes you and your organisation more scalable.

Not automating processes, even IT processes doesn't make sense. Still, when it comes to IT, we hardly do this. Why?

The situation at Amazon


I've come across many situations where things weren't automated. Worse yet, they could be automated. They were not automatable.

For me this was always an interesting fact to find out. For one, we're in IT and IT is all about automation. In fact, in Dutch we refer to IT as Automation (Automatisering - Dutch). The paradox is that we apply IT all over the enterprise to automate business processes, but when it comes to the IT processes themselves, automation is very likely the last thing on our minds. And when you think of it, that doesn't make sense at all. Walk into a room full of IT people, and just pose the statement that it is hard to understand why we're so good at automating business processes, yet we don't have automation in our own processes. And you'll see at least 90% of in-agreement-nodding heads, the remaining 10% are too flabbergasted with the realisation that this is a true statement. Same statement in a room full of non IT people and the first thing you find yourself doing is explaining why this is.

The fact that IT people are not automating their own processes is tough to explain, and I for one do not have such an explanation. There is an explanation though, for why Amazon AWS's processes are all automated. It's because one of the core principles by which they do IT is "Automate Everything". At a dinner party with Werner Vogels (Amazon's CTO) I was invited to, being the Chief Architect of a FinTech startup, I asked Werner (all attendees were told that we were on first-name basis), how it was possible for a huge company like Amazon AWS to live by these rigorous principles. Everything is an API, Automate Everything, and a few more. His reply was that there were two main reasons why it works. 
  1. Senior management all the way up to Jeff Bezos, were openly behind these principles. In fact many of them were mandated by Jeff Bezos himself. 
  2. Everybody in the organisation experienced for themselves the validity of these principles.
I asked him to clarify that second reason. According to Werner Vogels, Amazon is dedicating a lot if not all of its time to make its processes impacting customer experience as efficient as possible without impacting customer satisfaction. 'A satisfied customer is a returning customer'. The effects of changing a process is made visible to the whole company, at all times. So compliance to the principles will result in changes to the processes and the effects would be visible. Therefore, the validation of the principles would be continuous. And according to Werner, nothing is as motivating to change your processes than to see the effects of your efforts.

Rest of the dinner I was milling this over, enjoying the food and talk to the other guests.

The situation in the 'real world'

Unfortunately, most of us work at real enterprises. And those two reasons Werner Vogels had given me why IT process automation worked for Amazon aren't obvious in the situations I have found myself in.
For example, the amount of automation in a process within IT is not a metric that anybody is held accountable for anywhere I've worked or consulted. Neither are the benefits of automation part of somebody's accountability.
IT process cost reduction (IPCR) is as far as I know not a KPI within enterprises. Nor is the time-to-market (TTM). The latter often does find itself in another incarnation on reports and dashboards, namely as MTTR, the Mean Time To Resolution. When it comes to MTTR, we do see them on reports, but the MTTR is in hardly any case part of somebody's accountability. Same goes for time-to-market. Although it is always mentioned for any improvement project, it is hardly measured or reported on. It's a project issue in most cases, meaning that an organisation is doing projects instead of delivering products.
The lack of real metrics and if you will KPI's means that from an accountability perspective, there is not a clear person that has an incentive to push automation. And if you read my blogs on a regular basis, you know that I'm big on accountability.
Visibility of the effects of changes to the IT processes is another challenge for organisations. We often find ourselves in organisations that don't have a culture to measure our IT processes. This is especially true for organisations that have been around for decades. Since IT process automation is not pushed, there is no incentive to find bottlenecks in processes or pinpoint areas that are up for improvement. Resulting in the situation where the effect of improvements are not visible in most cases.

The lack of accountability and the rather big hurdle to be taken by IT departments in order to automate result in a situation in which we are just not automating our processes, because it gets no priority on our backlogs or funding in our PRINCE2 budgets. Process automation is collateral. And it's not a matter of not being as large a company as Amazon. It's a matter of not being aware of how automation affects the bottomline. And of not being held accountable for impacting the bottomline.

Third Time Principle

Three times is a charm, or at least should be automated.

In organisations I worked previously, the principle of automation as in play at Amazon was a little bit more pragmatic. One that has worked well for me, is the principle of "Everything done a third time, will be automated", reasoning behind this is that if you do the same thing a third time, it is extremely likely you will do it a 4th, 5th and even more times. The time required to create the automation will be saved by executing the task over and over again.

Time invested is never gained, but can only lead to savings later on.
The Third Time Principle is a compromise, although one might argue that it is a Troyan horse. By adopting this principle, the argument that it creates too much overhead for mundane actions is off the table. Only those actions that are performed repeatedly are automated. Built in justification for the investment needed.

The Third Time Principle is easy to adopt. Since it is a compromise, it can be applied when the push to automation is bottom-up. We often see that engineers see the need for automation since that is where automation will solve a problem and effects are noticed. To develop the automation is often a matter of getting the time to do so. Automation is now competing with other requirements for development time, for priority on the backlog. We all know where the priorities will be. Applying The Third Time Principle will remove this obstacle. Engineers can justify the need for automation and the Product Owner can justify the priority of the automation stories on the backlog.

Continuous Delivery

When striving for Continuous Delivery (CD) and more so for Continuous Deployment (also CD), there is no other way than to automate everything. CD requires a rigorous regime to move every manual task to the left in a process defined western style (i.e. left to right notation). Product development follows the DTAP model. Development is followed by testing is followed by accepting is followed by production → DTAP. In CD we hold true to the paradigm that everything manual is done in D, and TAP are fully automated. Any manual action in T, A and P needs to be automated and the scripts for this are developed in D, because otherwise it can't be done.
So when striving for Continuous Delivery, everything in the product development cycle is to be automated.

Accountability

When process automation metrics are part of somebody's accountability, that person will also be mandated to automate as much as possible. This is for the simple reason that you can't hold somebody accountable for something they cannot influence. Therefore, when process automation is measured through some metric for which somebody is accountable, it is that person's prerogative to drop The Third Time Principle and instead adopt the Automate Everything Principle.

Accountability is a matter of top-down enforcement. It is also a key aspect of culture change. When we want to adopt a culture in which we allow ourselves to reap all benefits of automation, especially our IT processes, we can't get around the fact that we need to revisit the metrics by which we hold ourselves accountable.

Scalability


One aspect that I haven't really touched upon is scalability, although I did mention it briefly. Automation is a key aspect of scalability, not so much scalability on a technical level but organisational scalability. Manual actions always need a person to execute them. The more complex the activities become, the more experienced or knowledgeable the person needs to be. And before you know it, it requires a specific person within the organisation. Because you rely on this person, that person will become the person with all required knowledge, it's a vicious circle. Think about it for a second, and I'm sure that you can think of a process or an activity in a process where you rely on a specific person and you know that person by name. In fact, if you want the activity to be done, you will even call that person because she's among the busiest persons in the company.

When you want to keep activities simple, you need to automate them. The more you automate, the easier it is to keep the activity simple. Hardly anything is more simpler than to have a command like 'do_complex_activity.py' provided that the automation is done using Python. Anybody can run this command provided they have the rights to do so, and when done really properly, anybody can do it at any time, because all the complexity of who can do what when is taken care of by the automation code as well.

Concluding

In the end, you'll agree that automation is what we need to apply to all our processes. At least when it's the third time you're doing the same job. It will improve quality and consistency. It also means that we as a company can scale our organisation without the need to increase headcount. It will be important to monitor the benefits of automation, without metrics it will remain a matter of good faith on the short term, and it will not justify the investments on a longer term. By understanding the benefits of automation and getting insights on where automation has most impact.


Thanks once again for reading my blog. Please don't be reluctant to Tweet about it, put a link on Facebook or recommend this blog to your network on LinkedIn. Heck, send the link of my blog to all your Whatsapp friends and everybody in your contact-list. But if you really want to show your appreciation, drop a comment with your opinion on the topic, your experiences or anything else that is relevant.

Arc-E-Tect


The text very explicitly communicates my own personal views, experiences and practices. Any similarities with the views, experiences and practices of any of my previous or current clients, customers or employers are strictly coincidental. This post is therefore my own, and I am the sole author of it and am the sole copyright holder of it.

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