Network Engineers – Don’t Let Manual Processes Be Your Kobayashi Maru

At the start of the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Lt. Saavik took a test known as the Kobayashi Maru.  The test was actually a trap to see how someone would handle a “no-win scenario” where any choice made would lead to a bad outcome.  In network engineering, a Kobayashi Maru-like scenario is emerging for those who resist a move away from manual processes.

Embracing Automation is Key

One of my new rules is that “manual processes are the mortal enemy of network operations”. Earlier this month I wrote a post discussing the new rules of running a WAN, discussing how manual processes are bad for the business because they make the network a big choke point for the company, stifling business innovation.

Manual processes also can have a significant negative impact on a network engineer’s career and ultimately place them in their own no-win scenario.  As I pointed out in my post, it’s time for network engineers to embrace automation as it allows the network to be configured and managed faster in the digital era. The ability to move with speed is critical to sustaining competitive advantage.

But there’s a more important reason that network engineers should shed manual processes for doing things, and that’s to advance their career away from the no-win scenario.  The world is changing, it’s becoming more dynamic and distributed, and every part of IT must follow suit.  Networks are certainly distributed, but they are in no way dynamic and one of the primary reasons why is that they lack automation.

New Skills Needed

The need for a new type of network means the people who run networks need to acquire new skills.  But how can one establish new skills if he or she is continuously  on call to fix some kind of critical error?  With legacy networks, these types of high level engineers were considered to possess Vulcan-like skills with respect to running a network.  Cut, paste, script, reboot, upgrade, change, modify, paste again, reboot again, one more modification, add a new script and boom, everything works.  Like magic, the person’s fingers flew over the keyboard to make the changes required.  Yes, these highly paid engineers are today’s network heroes.

The problem is that this model doesn’t fit today’s agile, DevOps-driven world where innovation and changes are made in real-time.  The manual overhead required to run a network is at odds with the fundamental principals of a new IT model.  CIOs understand this and I’ve seen many take a radical approach where they drive parallel IT strategies.  A legacy group focused on doing things the old way and then a new IT team with a mandate of being more agile.  It reminds me of when I started my career and the company I worked for had a mainframe group that did things their way and an open systems team that I worked on with a focus on Unix and Windows.  Over time, the Unix/Windows team grew and became the dominant team, while the mainframe team got smaller and smaller until it was dissolved.

Avoid the No-Win Scenario

The no win scenario happens when an individual is deemed so important to the legacy that the company can’t afford to have that person go off and acquire the new skills required to make the jump to a modern IT team.  In networking, the router jockeys who insist on manual processes because they are the only ones who can work with the equipment are the very individuals placing themselves into harm’s way in a no win scenario.

It may seem prudent and a logical way to protect one’s career, but it’s actually having the opposite effect — being the most skilled person in an area that will diminish in importance over time, limiting career advancement.  The time is ripe to get ahead of the curve, to embrace automation and to focus on building expertise for the digital era, thereby avoiding the network version of the Kobayashi Maru.