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Transforming Art into Science

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.  

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I've noticed the same thing...SA's really do have a hero complex.

So do you suppose that SA's develop hero complexes due to the nature of the work, or are low-level adrenaline junkies drawn to the role?

There aren't really any Indiana Jones-type figures to emulate in computerdom, at least that I can think of at the moment. I suppose RMS, ESR, or some of the other TLAs might count, but in general, we're without the equivalent of House M.D. for rockstar veneration. Nope, I think we come by it naturally.

An aside: anything that Atul Gawande writes is well worth reading!

I got here by way of Jesse Truck's reference.

The banes of fire-fighting. I don't know if you've read Visible Ops, but they have a statistic that high performing IT shops only spend 5% of their time doing unplanned work and the importance of change management.

But fighting fires is fun! Deadlines are so lame. I agree our profession has a long way to go to instill good discipline of our practitioners to prevent fires in the first place.

Checklists are a great first step towards a process driven environments, and they are not sexy. Regression tests and bounds checking doesn't get anyone to bound of bed at 2 in the morning.

Stable operations are boring and that's exactly the way it should be. But who wants to work in a shop that's boring?

Making technology work to just to keep it functioning or faster for faster's sake is a mistake. Martin Heidegger indirectly talks about this danger of technology in "Question Concerning Technology" as well as a saving power.

Hubert Dreyfus then comments on this saving power and how it can be a chance to make marginal activities central to our lives instead of secondary. Walks, wine with friends could be central, not keeping the e-mail system up.

I just finished up my thesis where I attempted to understand how this connectivity has impacted our lives. Staying connected for connected sake is silly. If we can stabilize our profession, we can have more time to spend on the activities that really improve the quality of our lives.

Discipline our science so we have more time for art.

Make the checklist so you don't have to worry about being late for dinner, tinkering with the next gadget, missing your kids concert, or whatever you'd rather be doing instead of fire-fighting.

If you like fire-fighting, become a fireman.

Shameless Plug:


Management need to challenge their sysadmins to constantly automate and monitor their systems.

The challenge should be to be constantly doing things smarter and smarter.

If there is a strong divide between operations and engineering - this needs to be dissolved and a dev-ops group created instead.

The admins should be also challenged to reduce costs, to build rigorous automated testing and pedantic monitoring.

The 'IT' department also needs to be seen as a cost savings centre. If all of the above can be satisfactorily accomplished (which realistically it cant be) - the next step is for IT to turn their gaze outward and begin searching for new ways to save the company money and deliver more effectively for customers.

This post has been extremely insightful and useful to increase my knowledge in the field of knowledge and its many facets.
Ergo Baby Carrier Sale Thank you very much, I will certainly come back to visit often and definitely tell some of my internet-inclined friends to visit this site. Keep posting and expressing your knowledge and opinions strong!

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