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Other Voices: The Changing Role of the IT Hero


Jake Sorofman works for rPath, a provider of automated application deployment tools. You can contact Jake at jsorofman@rpath.com.


Every IT organization relies on a handful of talented technical artisans to take on the trickiest tasks in the data center. These folks are the script wranglers, the IT cowboys (and girls) who -- through a brilliant infusion of intellect, competitive spirit and occasional subversion -- make the data center work. They're the heroes who make disproportionate contributions to the trade, and we love them for it.

But times are changing, and the role of the IT Hero is being reconsidered.

That is not to say that the IT Hero is any less loved or valued; in fact, the need for the IT Hero will persist ad infinitum. It's just that circumstances are forcing IT leadership to look beyond the preternaturally gifted few to run the data center. As system scale and complexity compounds, change accelerates, and business lines demand more -- faster -- IT needs to clear this bottleneck.

Traditionally, the IT Hero wrote the scripts that made IT processes scale. But as software and deployment environments become ever more diverse and dynamic, these scripts grow like kudzu. What began as a way to economize IT has become a large cost center in its own right: Today, maintaining scripts is often as costly as maintaining IT systems themselves.

And guess who manages these scripts?

That's the IT Hero: Brilliant, but overly entwined with the fitness and survival of the data center. What happens if he or she leaves the building? What happens when scale and change explode? Ever try recruiting heroes? They're few and far between. Of course, this ignores the more obvious point that IT has little appetite for any significant hiring in this age of "doing more with less."

Beyond the sheer opacity and inscrutability of scripts, there are a variety of technical reasons this approach to automation fails in a time of scale and change. I won't cover that ground here -- it could consume many pages of commentary, and it's expertly discussed by Erik Troan in his two-part series on the topic.

But the key point is that IT needs to shift from script-based to model-driven approaches to automation. While scripts provide detailed programmatic instructions that automate detailed procedures for how to perform a rote task, a model-driven approach allows IT to get out of the weeds and focus on the definition of the desired end-state rather than the exact steps to get there. Once the end-state is defined, the procedural execution is automated.

This model-driven approach to managing IT systems has several key advantages:

  • IT Heroes can delegate. Traditionally, the thorniest IT issues have quickly escalated from front to backline support -- the domain of the IT Hero. Model-driven automation abstracts complexity, putting control in the hands of a broader set of IT personnel and allowing heroes to deflect many of the inbounds.
  • IT Heroes can focus on higher-value tasks. Expending effort to write and maintain low-level scripts for undifferentiated processes -- in other words, processes that cannot yield a sustainable competitive advantage -- is a wasted use of talent. This evolution allows IT Heroes to focus on higher value, more strategic contributions.
  • IT leadership can sleep at night. With comfort that the knowledge of how processes are automated is explicit and documented, rather than implicit and trapped between the ears of the smartest few. If the IT Hero departs to Google, the lights stay on and data center processes continue to function.

What's this mean for the best and brightest in IT? More interesting challenges to tackle, more business value to deliver. The truest IT Heroes are hardly threatened by their changing role. They're up for the challenge, inspired to lead the way forward, and to prove that their value and contributions cannot be commoditized. The IT Hero lives on.


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