When I worked at IBM as an intern, part of my job was writing a deployment script to help make our lives easier when installing new ThinkPads. In order to change an MTU setting on the token ring PCMCIA cards (long story), I had to write a script that iterated through all the possible combinations of adapters in the registry to find the one I was looking for and change the value.
Now, I was 22 at the time and green behind the ears, especially when it came to programming. I finally figured out that the most efficient way to do this in the language that I was using was a very deep nested if statement. It wasn’t my best work but it operated properly. I mentioned this to my mentors on my team with a remark of how hard it was to understand the logic at first. My comment was “You know, if it’s hard to read for anyone else then I never have to worry about gettin fired.”
To which the response was, “Yes, but you can never be promoted either.”
That sage wisdom brings me to the modern world and how AI can fix that issue.
One of the first things you learn in IT is not to volunteer. If you know how to implement a technology or troubleshoot a specific issue then you become the go-to person for that problem. If you add a skill to the team like debugging Rust or configuring voice mail dial peers then you are the new owner for that particular skill.
This becomes annoying when you finally move past that skillset and you’re on to new and better things. If you are the person that knows how to extend database schemas or change auto attendant functions you are always going to be called upon to do those things. Rather than moving on to new challenges you will be called back to work on the things that no one else bothered to learn or couldn’t pawn off on someone else.
When you think about it, that’s part of the reason why so many entry-level positions start with some basics like VLAN programming or LUN configuration. Sure, you’re learning the basics and understanding how systems operate. But you’re also repeating the things that the junior person before you did. Why? Because they now have someone to do that work for them. And when the new person gets hired as a junior-level technician, you’re going to pass along those tasks to someone so they can learn and so you can move on. It’s the Circle of IT Life.
The reinforcement of knowledge is only so important to the organization. Yes, you need someone to keep the lights on and do the tasks regarded as menial by the senior teams. However, miring people in those tasks makes them feel undervalued after a while because no one wants to take them on. And, as above, if it’s something that no one else can be bothered to learn or take over you’re going to be stuck doing it until you leave or until the system in question is eventually replaced. And even then you’ll probably be asked to learn how to do the new thing because “this is your system”.
Learning, Not Thinking
The reason why I’m excited for applied AI in infrastructure and operations is because it will learn these menial tasks and do them as instructed every time without complaint or mistake. Yes, that means you need to train the algorithm correctly. Yes, that means you need to be on the lookout for changes and update accordingly when hardware changes or when procedure changes. Given those constraints AI will work for you, not against you.
When you move on to a new role you expect to face new challenges. If you move from a junior role to a senior role you want to work on harder things or solve new problems. You don’t want to get a new title with the same old work. If you change teams you want to experience new systems and implement new technology. You don’t want to be the cloud person that still deploys campus switches in wiring closets.
In a way, having AI take over the basic tasks of your job functions doesn’t remove your job. It promotes you to a new role. It could be that the first promotion is running the system that you implemented to do the work. A “train the trainer” kind of role, if you will. As soon as you can ensure that it is working correctly and that the rest of the team is aware of how to keep the engine running you can decide where you want to go next. You essentially have the freedom to learn and do and not have to be concerned about going back to doing the old things.
Is AI the Enemy?
AI doesn’t take away jobs. It takes away tasks. It streamlines processes and provides consistent, repeatable outcomes. If your job is a collection of tasks that need to be done then it is worth asking why it’s so easy for it to be replaced by an AI system. I’ve said on a number of occasions that there will always been room for jobs that AI can’t do, such as those that involve physical labor, as well as advanced thinking and creative problem solving.
Where AI does succeed is in the repeatable task department. If a role is comprised of repeatable tasks then the question becomes “why does this role exist?” If an algorithm can determine the best way to implement VLANs or offload clients to other devices then the job that was doing those roles needs to be examined. Can that person be encourage to do something else for the company? Can that role be reduced and given to someone with less experience? If those questions make you or someone on your team bristle, is that the fault of the AI? Or the fact of the job being less than ideal for the business?
AI can take away some of the unimportant and forgettable parts of your job and give you the freedom to do things that are more important to the business, possibly in a different role. Isn’t that the textbook definition of a promotion? Change makes people uncomfortable. It makes sense that no one wants to have their job taken away. But if you ask anyone in IT right now if they could get rid of 10-20% of the tasks in their job that they don’t like to do they’d agree in a heartbeat. AI isn’t going to remove your job. It’s going to give you the freedom to do something different. It’s also going to ensure you don’t have to keep getting called back to do that thing over and over again because no one else wants to learn it. I think it’s time we let new technologies like AI give everyone on the team the promotion they deserve.