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IT administrator 2.0: Adapting to life in the automation age

As the use of automation becomes increasingly pervasive in enterprise IT environments, systems administrators need to adapt and update their skills to remain relevant

Greek philosopher Heraclitus claimed the one constant in life is change, and that sentiment is certainly true for the life of an IT administrator, as they balance the management requirements of the IT environments they currently oversee with the need to keep up to date with the ever-changing technology landscape.

Against such a backdrop, it can be difficult to see the way forward in terms of being prepared professionally for these changes. So, what might the future role of an administrator look like and what might they need to know to stay current?

First, it is important to understand there is a huge shift, not only in the types of technology, such as private and public cloud, but also the way in which these technologies are managed and consumed.

The days of using “point and click” graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to perform systems administration tasks are nearing an end, and it is now seen as a legacy way to interact with an IT infrastructure stack.

Automate to innovate

There is a bit of a grandiose saying: “If you do it manually twice, you’re doing it wrong.” This kind of thinking is reinforced by the fact that a lot of Microsoft applications now have an option to export the entire setup process to a PowerShell script, making repeating almost any process simple and straightforward.

This is only part of a bigger picture, however. With the assistance of cloud computing and web-scale infrastructure, the ability to provide consistent, automated outcomes is becoming increasingly important.

This is because scale-up and scale-down functionality is not something that lends itself well to manual processing, making automation a must-have for IT environments as enterprises strive to ensure their infrastructure can keep up with the speed at which the business needs to operate.

For example, where developers are concerned, the ability to quickly spin up new IT environments where new services and features can be developed, tested and – ultimately – rolled out, is essential when it comes to keeping up with changing customer demands, and automation plays an important role here.

These environments often need to have a consistent set of characteristics and features, and automation ensures multiple examples of them can be created quickly to meet that brief. In contrast, relying on manual processes may mean there is a higher risk of inconsistencies occurring.

This is why most companies are utilising tools and driving automation projects as part of their wider digital transformation efforts, and one of the consequences of this trend is that fewer IT administrators will be needed.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to talk about automation in any industry context, whether that be manufacturing, healthcare, retail or IT, without the questions about the impact this may have on the size of the workforce and the risk to jobs.

But there are also efficiency and productivity benefits to be gained from embracing automation, because eliminating repetitive, manual processes from any businesses workflow can help employees save time that could be better spent elsewhere, and help the business reach its goals faster.  

Get automation-savvy

For IT administrators who want to stay gainfully employed, it is important to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to automation, and ensure their automation skillsets are centred around harnessing application programming interfaces (APIs).

Aside from that, though, where should the upskilling of an administrator begin? Based on personal experience, the process should start with the following:

  • Choose a scripting technology that is relevant: This may end up splitting down the Windows and Linux routes. For example, if you work in the Windows world, it makes sense to learn PowerShell as it provides a certain level of familiarity. As the administrator becomes more skilled, it becomes easier to learn new tools and techniques.
  • Find jobs that could be scripted in your organisation and try to apply the knowledge you learn: This will not only make you look good to your boss, but also save you time. It can be difficult to get started, but it provides an ideal opportunity to kick-start the upskilling process.
  • Never stop learning: Focus on expanding your knowledge and using your desired technology to learn about interacting with technologies via their APIs. Most modern products should have a well-documented API that you can use to implement what you desire.
  • Make the most of RESTful APIs: Using RESTful APIs means that no matter what language you use, the response will be consistent across the board, making life easier. This process will require the IT administrator to become fluent in JSON (Javascript Object Notation), which is now the standard choice for platform-independent data interchanges.
  • Give it time: All these new technologies will take time to master, but start small and it will come.

Once all these different technologies are pulled together it can be time to move up into the world of orchestration. At this point, the role you are working on becomes rather specific and will be more akin to a developer than an administrator. A tip here is while learning the technology of your choice, think about learning how to use version control too, such as GIT, or whatever version control technology is used by your company.

In short, relearning techniques, reacquainting yourself with tools and applying them where possible can help speed up the time it takes to add skills. And, in time, adding automation to the IT infrastructure management mix might help make the IT administrator’s job more enjoyable, compared with doing things manually.

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