The biggest problem with transforming Art into Science is that people would rather be Artists than Scientists. No, wait, you say, I love Science! Yeah, now would you rather be a Rock Star or a Lab Tech? Yes, you see the problem.
I recently read a New Yorker article that completely kicks ass in describing how medical science is poised on the cusp of a potential transformation into something that can save Even More Lives, but via a path that's difficult to take: the humble, homely, not the science of the rocket, procedural checklist. As the article states,
Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" tells the story of our first astronauts, and charts the demise of the maverick, Chuck Yeager test-pilot culture of the nineteen-fifties. ... But as knowledge of how to control the risks of flying accumulated--as checklists and flight simulators became more prevalent and sophisticated--the danger diminished, values of safety and conscientiousness prevailed, and the rock-star status of the test pilots was gone.
Reading this, I was instantly transported into familiarity. This is the exact problem that I spent a decade banging my head against in Systems Administration, and what drove me to spend the next decade in Project Mangement to try to solve. A number of us in the Usenix and LISA communities seemed to have a handle on this, but the way the blind men had a handle on the elephant. We specialized in dealing with our rope, our fan, our spear, our wall, our tree, and, umm, whatever the sixth thing was that the elephant was like-- oh yes, our snake. We didn't have the problem space sharply defined. Author, and doctor, Atul Gawande describes the dilemma precisely:
We have the means to make some of the most complex and dangerous work we do--in surgery, emergency care, and I.C.U. medicine--more effective than we ever thought possible. But the prospect pushes against the traditional culture of medicine, with its central belief that in situations of high risk and complexity what you want is a kind of expert audacity--the right stuff, again. Checklists and standard operating procedures feel like exactly the opposite, and that's what rankles many people.
"Expert audacity." Yes. Absolutely. It's what the cool kids do. Indiana Jones meets skatepunk, and checklists ain't got the cool.
While I have been able to leverage automation and some ticketing systems to bring reproducible, higher levels of support to some of my clients, until recently I didn't Get It. I did not see clearly enough that many people, even very well-meaning ones, will resist changes that reduce the intensity level of their daily jobs. They fear becoming bored, unappreciated, less vital to the organization. The addiction to the adrenaline cycle and the kind of "cult hero" status that goes with it is very, very difficult for an organization to break. As Brent Chapman noted, discussing resistance to automated network management, everybody wants to be a hero
While I have always seen career mentoring as an important part of managing a team, I didn't realize how important it is to build up a vision of what people will be doing when they're no longer playing superhero.
Systems people are keenly aware of projects that are languishing while they respond to interrupts. It's rare to meet someone who doesn't have a "someday I'll get to this" list. Stabilizing the network and systems environment and establishing strong processes, including checklists, is vital for scaling services and being responsive to the needs of the organization. A decrease in emergent crises ("complications", in medical parlance) frees up cycles for complex projects that present true depth and scope challenges for individuals and teams.
Being a Rock Star is fun-- as countless Guitar Hero and Rock Band fans, including myself, can attest. Quiet, directed competence can be just as much fun, though, and allow personal and career growth with a bit less drama and a bit more sleep. While networks, legacy applications, and odd emergent behaviors of client desktops aren't as complex (perhaps!) as a living organism, there is plenty in common. As Dr. G says:
It's ludicrous, though, to suppose that checklists are going to do away with the need for courage, wits, and improvisation. The body is too intricate and individual for that: good medicine will not be able to dispense with expert audacity. Yet it should also be ready to accept the virtues of regimentation.
Sing it, brother.