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You're the Frog and Automation is about to Boil You

By Joe Fuller, VP & CIO, Dominion Enterprises

Joe Fuller, VP & CIO, Dominion Enterprises

In an old parable a frog is placed in tepid water whose temperature is gradually and slowly raised to the boiling point. As the water gets warmer, instead of recognizing peril, the frog falls into a calm stupor and is boiled to death. If you’re a CIO, the water you’re getting comfortable in is called automation.

"We’re worshiping at the automation altar and unconsciously shunning the good IT people we have fostered our whole careers"

Elon Musk recently predicted that automation will eliminate so many jobs that governments will be forced to pay a universal basic income to each and every citizen, regardless of their work status. McDonald’s stock just hit an all time high after announcing that it will replace human cashiers with kiosks in 2500 restaurants. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has over a thousand people dedicated to their Alexa artificial intelligence platform. Mark Zuckerberg recently told graduating Harvard students that millions of jobs are about to be replaced by things like self-driving cars and trucks. The consensus is clear: automation is going to drastically reduce certain types of jobs. What does this mean for the CIO?

Let’s look at where you are. I bet you jumped on the virtualization bandwagon as soon as you realized how much time and money could be saved compared to traditional rack-and-stack systems administration. You probably embraced agile development and you have at least experimented with DevOps. You may have deployed automated patch management. You might even be exploring ways to automate by pushing computing jobs to public cloud providers and beyond cloud providers. Your CEO and CFO partners have certainly encouraged you to automate, which has sped up IT delivery and reduced IT costs. With automation, you’ve probably improved your group’s performance without cutting staff or spending more on IT. It seems everyone is winning with automation, so where’s the rub?

As CIO, there’s a big insidious problem warming up your kettle as you leverage automation. You’ve encouraged your people to seek efficiency and automation and drive lower expenses. You and your team can point to hard dollars saved whenever one of these automation mini-projects goes live. Our company has seen its digital operations grow at about a 25 percent annual clip since 2009 at the expense of traditional operations. But we’ve actually reduced our operating expenses through automation and the normal influence of Moore’s law. During this time, we’ve reduced staff slightly through attrition. We haven’t been too worried about that because the automation really does seem to eliminate the need for bodies. But there’s a big problem sneaking up on us: we’re losing our mojo.

What do I mean by losing our mojo? We’re worshiping at the automation altar and unconsciously shunning the good IT people we have fostered our whole careers. These people are creative. They are brilliant. They love to solve problems. They love to build and re-build to make things better. They hate when things break but they love fixing things when they break. They prefer the command line to a GUI interface. And we’re losing them. They get that automation is a good thing and embrace eliminating mundane tasks. They know that reducing power consumption by 45% in the data center is good for everyone. They like being the Maytag repairman when it’s their turn to be on call. But they are bored. They are scared. They are confused about where the industry is going and concerned they too will be obsolete like loading an operating system on a stand-alone server. They have been looking for jobs that offer more challenge, but the reality is that your shop is pretty much the same as IT shops everywhere.

If you’re like me, you’ve looked into the future and seen incomprehensibly massive Amazon, Microsoft and Google data centers in the deserts of the world manned by a handful of security guards who replace the cameras and the water hoses every now and then. You don’t see the engineers who designed the systems or the R&D team working on the “Gen 7” data center that doesn’t even need those water hoses. They are barren, hot places that no humans daydream about working in.

I’ve painted a bleak picture but take heart. As CIO, you have the power to place humans into this picture and have everything be OK. But you have to change. Your organization must keep chasing automation but you don’t have to. You must delegate those tasks to either specific people or to specific times for you and your people. In other words, you have to stop spending all your time thinking tactically about automation and devote time to thinking strategically about innovation. You owe it to yourself and your IT team to check the box on automated operation but demand more of yourself and your team on the strategic front.

How do you do this? Talk to your team. Ask them about their fears. Ask them what they think you all can do to help move the business forward through innovation and not just automation. Go to summits and seminars and encourage your folks to do the same. Take time to allow show-and-tell when everyone gets back. Sponsor hackathons to develop on the latest AI technology. Buy the newest gadgets for your executives and help them actually use them. Solicit new product ideas from every corner of the business (not just IT) and have the ideas be submitted via short, entertaining videos. Identify IT trends and specifically give your IT teams projects related to those trends that are not specifically tied to cost reductions. Embrace the after-hours activities of your team and find ways to let them share the neat things they are doing outside work.

Automation has been a great boon to IT in the last 10 years and it has made us less expensive and more reliable. But we can’t lose our greatest asset– our smart people. You as CIO are responsible for shifting time and resources to nurture them so we continue to provide maximum value to the businesses we serve. Don’t let us get comfortable in this automation pot and suffer the frog’s fate.