Saturday, December 3, 2022

Why Automate? Programmability is about solving new problems without fear of failure.

Have you ever heard someone say "I'm not a coder" at work?

The IT industry is changing again. Our humble origins began as polymaths moved from adjacent industries and created a new world from scratch. The pioneering phase led to unique opportunities, creating our transport protocols, programming languages, and ways of building.

The appetite for trying new things is fundamentally different now. We don't worry as much about functional quality with our IT products in this day and age. Even Windows, the butt of jokes in the 2000s provides a consistent and reliable user experience.

Is this the denouement for IT innovation? Neal Stephenson predicted this issue in 2011, examining the creativity and breakneck pace the aerospace industry developed in the 1960s/1970s.

More importantly, he brings to light a painful pattern that IT engineers often go through when trying to create new things for their company's goals - "done before" means something isn't worth doing. Don't we all buy products from (more or less) the same companies to achieve similar outcomes? Why should we care if an idea was executed before?

Liability for failure and high expectations both in quality and reduced risk are prolific in today's market. I'd argue that we have a new problem - after a decade or so of easy-to-implement, highly reliable products, we've forgotten what it feels like to try something new. We're told it costs too much, or might hurt the business when infrastructure engineers want to attempt something novel, and removing something costly is too much of a problem.

The software development market has this figured out. The shift to artistic creativity has provided some growing pains, but we see a potential bridge to the future here. Infrastructure engineers may not "be coders" but uncertain outcomes are what engineers (pragmatic creatives, not artistic creatives) excel at. Our analog in the industry, actual engineers incrementally improve a physical resource, creating safer cars or city designs that promote creative growth. They don't need to worry about the low-level components functioning.

IT is maturing, and our goals are changing, but we can't forget where we came from. Software Development is bifurcating from IT infrastructure. The internal focus for infrastructure is shifting to  providing tools and resources to developers as typical customers. We need to find strength in our pragmatic creativity.

Through rose-tinted glasses, "melting pot" innovation imparts a culture of "can-do" wherever success lives - but the transition to disposable electronics/mechanical products is removing opportunities for the development of the required skills. Deep down we know this is bad, and key themes are being set by those who can, "maker spaces" and "hackerspaces" are good examples of this key trend. We need to teach new engineers not to fear failure or the practice of trying.

This doesn't mean that we can throw caution to the wind. While I admire a farmer's ability to innovate at work, creating some trailblazing (albeit somewhat unsafe) fixes in the field is not what we need in IT. (Check out FarmCraft101 for some of the stuff they do)

We need to change how the IT infrastructure industry operates. Educating new engineers will always be at least a little bit of trial and error, and the most important thing we can do is create an environment where we balance the values of trailblazing and reliable delivery. Programmability does this for us, but we don't know how to use it fully yet - but we can look at the other engineering industries to see what might work for us.

What Works

IT Engineers all seem to agree that setting up "labs" facilitates healthy innovation. Home labs offer an environment where an individual can break and rebuild, with an onus to fix it. Resources like VMware's Hands-on-Labs provide a zero-cost method to learn without consequence, albeit with product marketing.

Dyed-in-the-wool engineers love testing. New engineers learn by examining failure without negative context; engineers may work for years before actually building anything themselves. The search term "failure analysis" provides a wealth of information on the processes used by pragmatically creative individuals to steadily improve modular designs to the point where they achieve an artistically creative outcome.

Continuous Delivery practices (DevOps) supercharge these practices; We don't have to deal with physicality. If we manage to automate testing, it costs us virtually zero time, and we can pick up the failure modes as educational resources for new engineers.

How We Can Change

I'd like to see a practice that is two-thirds engineering and one-third "redneck farm repairs". With the FarmCraft101 example, we see an admirable attitude instead of apprehension towards trying new things, and we need to combine it with mature, reliable practices.

The combination of removing or reducing costs for failure and a drive to try new things is about to reach a critical point in the IT industry. We're seeing waves of new engineers enter the industry born in the 2000s, and they don't remember having to try and set IRQs, flip DIP switches with the right type of ballpoint pen, and 32-bit memory ceilings. Personal Computers have become throwaway devices that we don't have to understand well to use, and we need ways to preserve the resilience that comes with "I can solve any problem that comes my way". Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and their lookalikes revitalize this mindset and provide a quality of education that we wish we had when we were young - let's make sure the younglings use it.

I'd also like to see some self-awareness. Most people who "can't code" are in the same boat as those who "can't write", they just don't feel artistically creative. Pragmatic creativity is the backbone of modern engineering - a concept artist doesn't design a car or make it real beyond visual aesthetic and non-functional requirements. The inability to write creatively or "code" is fixed first by identifying a useful goal and achieving it. Infrastructure engineers already do this - just look at how network engineers make long-haul connectivity meet a business objective, or how HTTP forwarding rules make an application behave better.

Let's remove the belief that coding is impossible - most of the truly "propeller-hat" stuff has been done by vendors and community members already - so this leaves most actual software development as "exchanging text files over a network" or "making deterministic paths for behavior". The reason why Object-Oriented Programming and other best practices are emphasized is to ensure you know why it's there. Understanding how an automatic transmission works and should be appropriately used helps a driver improve their skills, but the point to which we learn varies from person to person, and a deep understanding isn't always necessary.

Know your strengths, and know that you can meaningfully contribute by using them. It might take a lifetime to figure out how, but it's worth it.

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