Doug Hill, James Bessen and Jim Stogdill continue discussing the impact of automation.
Editor’s note: Doug Hill and I recently had a conversation here on Radar about the impact of automation on jobs. In one of our exchanges, Doug mentioned a piece by James Bessen. James reached out to me and was kind enough to provide a response. What follows is their exchange.
JAMES BESSEN: I agree, Doug, that we cannot dismiss the concerns that technology might cause massive unemployment just because technology did not do this in the past. However, in the past, people also predicted that machines would cause mass unemployment. It might be helpful to understand why this didn’t happen in the past and to ask if anything today is fundamentally different.
Many people make a simple argument: 1) they observe that machines can perform job tasks and 2) they conclude that therefore humans will lose their jobs. I argued that this logic is too simple. During the 19th century, machines took more than 98% of the labor needed to weave a yard of cloth. But the number of weavers actually grew because the lower price of cloth increased demand. This is why, contrary to Marx, machines did not create mass unemployment. Read more…
Will automation beget a jobless wasteland or more stimulating, creative employment? That's up for debate.
Editor’s note: We’re trying something new here. I read this back-and-forth exchange between Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons, and decided we should give it a try. Or, more accurately, since we’re already having plenty of back-and-forth email exchanges like that, we just need to start publishing them. My friend Doug Hill, author of Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, agreed to be a guinea pig and chat with me about a subject that’s on both of our minds (and a lot of other people’s): technology and the jobless recovery. We’ll be diving into this topic again next week in a debate hosted at Strata. This post was lightly edited on 2/6/14 for clarity.
STOGDILL: I saw this Tweet over the holidays while I was reading your book. I mean, I literally got distracted by this tweet while I was reading your book:
— Ari Gesher (@alephbass) January 3, 2014
It felt like a natural moment of irony that I had to share with you. In the article Ari Gesher references in his Tweet, Vivek Whadwa obviously has an optimistic point of view, and Gesher was right to call out the inconsistency of his claims with our jobless recovery. I also recently read George Packer’s The Unwinding, his enlightening and disturbing look at the human stories behind our current malaise, and frankly it seems to better reflect the truth on the ground, at least if you get outside of the big five metro areas. But I suspect not a lot of techno optimists are spending time in places that won’t get 4G LTE for another year or two. Read more…
Rosie the Robot may feel more comfortable talking to Siri than to you
Recently, Glenn Martin wrote an article describing how robotics in moving out of the factory and into the house. And while Glenn restricted himself mainly to the type of robots that pop into your head when someone says the word (either the anthropomorphic variety or the industrial flavor), the reality is that there are a lot of robots already in the hands of consumers, although it might take a moment to recognize them as such.
I’m speaking of drones, and especially quadcopters, which are proliferating at an enormous rate, and are being used to do everything from documenting a cool skateboard move to creating a breathtaking overflight of a horrific disaster site.
Maintaining a desired behavior
In two previous posts (Part 1 and Part 2) we introduced the idea of feedback control. The basic idea is that we can keep a system (any system!) on track, by constantly monitoring its actual behavior, so that we can apply corrective actions to the system’s input, to “nudge” it back on target, if it ever begins to go astray.
This begs the question: Why should we, as programmers, software engineers, and system administrator care? What’s in it for us?
Velocity 2013 Speaker Series
There’s an old joke about the aviation cockpit of the future that it will contain just a pilot and a dog. The pilot will be there to watch the automation. The dog will be there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything.
Although they will all deny it, the majority of modern IT developers have exactly this view of automation: the system is designed to be self regulating and operators are there to watch it, not to operate it. The result is current systems are often inoperable, i.e. systems they cannot be effectively operated because their functions and capacities are hidden or inaccessible.
The conceit in the pilot-and-the-dog joke is that modern systems do not require operation, that they are autonomous. Whenever these systems are exhibited, our attention is drawn to their autonomous features. But there are no systems that actually function without operators. Even when we claim they are “unmanned”, all important systems have operators who are intimately involved in their function: UAV’s are piloted, the Mars rover is driven, the satellites are managed, surgical robots are manipulated, insulin pumps are programmed. We do not see these activities–many are performed by workers who remain anonymous–but we depend on them.
Why the Velocity conference is coming to New York.
In October, we’re bringing our Velocity conference to New York for the first time. Let’s face it, a company expanding its conference to other locations isn’t anything that unique. And given the thriving startup scene in New York, there’s no real surprise we’d like to have a presence there, either. In that sense, we’ll be doing what we’ve already been doing for years with the Velocity conference in California: sharing expert knowledge about the skills and technologies that are critical for building scalable, resilient, high-availability websites and services.
But there’s an even more compelling reason we’re looking to New York: the finance industry. We’d be foolish and remiss if we acted like it didn’t factor in to our decision, and that we didn’t also share some common concerns, especially on the operational side of things. The Velocity community spends a great deal of time navigating significant operational realities — infrastructure, cost, risk, failures, resiliency; we have a great deal to share with people working in finance, and I’d wager, a great deal to learn in return. If Google or Amazon go down, they lose money. (I’m not saying this is a good thing, mind you.) When a “technical glitch” occurs in financial service systems, we get flash crashes, a complete suspension of the Nasdaq, and whatever else comes next — all with potentially catastrophic outcomes. Read more…
The NSA Can't Replace 90% of Its System Administrators
In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA’s domestic surveillance activities, the NSA has recently announced that they plan to get rid of 90% of their system administrators via software automation in order to “improve security.” So far, I’ve mostly seen this piece of news reported and commented on straightforwardly. But it simply doesn’t add up. Either the NSA has a monumental (yet not necessarily surprising) level of bureaucratic bloat that they could feasibly cut that amount of staff regardless of automation, or they are simply going to be less effective once they’ve reduced their staff. I talked with a few people who are intimately familiar with the kind of software that would typically be used for automation of traditional sysadmin tasks (Puppet and Chef). Typically, their products are used to allow an existing group of operations people to do much more, not attempting to do the same amount of work with significantly fewer people. The magical thinking that the NSA can actually put in automation sufficient to do away with 90% of their system administration staff belies some fundamental misunderstandings about automation. I’ll tackle the two biggest ones here.
1. Automation replaces people. Automation is about gaining leverage–it’s about streamlining human tasks that can be handled by computers in order to add mental brainpower. As James Turnbull, former VP of Business Development for PuppetLabs, said to me, “You still need smart people to think about and solve hard problems.” (Whether you agree with the types of problems the NSA is trying to solve is a completely different thing, of course.) In reality, the NSA should have been working on automation regardless of the Snowden affair. It has a massive, complex infrastructure. Deploying a new data center, for example, is a huge undertaking; it’s not something you can automate.
Or as Seth Vargo, who works for OpsCode–the creators of configuration management automation software Chef–puts it, “There’s still decisions to be made. And the machines are going to fail.” Sascha Bates (also with OpsCode) chimed in to point out that “This presumes that system administrators only manage servers.” It’s a naive view. Are the DBAs going away, too? Network administrators? As I mentioned earlier, the NSA has a massive, complicated infrastructure that will always require people to manage it. That plus all the stuff that isn’t (theoretically) being automated will now fall on the remaining 10% who don’t get laid off. And that remaining 10% will still have access to the same information.
2. Automation increases security. Automation increases consistency, which can have a relationship with security. Prior to automating something, you might have a wide variety of people doing the same thing in varying ways, hence with varying outcomes. From a security standpoint, automation provides infrastructure security, and makes it auditable. But it doesn’t really increase data/information security (e.g. this file can/cannot live on that server)–those too are human tasks requiring human judgement. And that’s just the kind of information Snowden got his hands on. This is another example of a government agency over-reacting to a low probability event after the fact. Getting rid of 90% of their sysadmins is the IT equivalent of still requiring airline passengers to take off their shoes and cram their tiny shampoo bottles into plastic baggies; it’s security theater.
There are a few upsides, depending on your perspective on this whole situation. First, if your company is in the market for system administrators, you might want to train your recruiters on D.C. in the near future. Additionally, odds are the NSA is going to be less effective than it is right now. Perhaps, like the CIA, they are also courting Amazon Web Services (AWS) to help run their own private cloud, but again, as Sascha said, managing servers is only a small piece of the system administrator picture.
If you care about or are interested in automation, operations, and security, please join us at Velocity New York on October 14-16. Dr. Nancy Leveson will be delivering a fantastic keynote on security and complex systems.
Simplifying IT automation
IT infrastructure should be simpler to automate. A new method of describing IT configurations and policy as data formats can help us get there. To understand this conclusion, it helps to understand how the existing tool chains of automation software came to be.
In the beginnings of IT infrastructure, administrators seeking to avoid redundant typing wrote scripts to help them manage their growing computer hordes. The development of these inhouse automation systems were not without cost; each organization built its own redundant tools. As scripting gurus left an organization, these scripts were often very difficult to maintain by new employees.
As we all know by the huge number of books written on the topic, software development sometimes has a large amount of time investment required to do it right. Systems management software is especially complex, due to all the possible variables and corner cases to be managed. These inhouse scripting systems often grew to be fragile.
OSCON 2013 Speaker Series
Automating the configuration management of your operating systems and the rollout of your applications is one of the most important things an administrator or developer can do to avoid surprises when updating services, scaling up, or recovering from failures. However, it’s often not enough. Some of the most common operations that happen in your datacenter (or cloud environment) involve large numbers of machines working together and humans to mediate those processes. While we have been able to remove a lot of human effort from configuration, there has been a lack of software able to handle these higher-level operations.
I used to work for a hosted web application company where the IT process for executing an application update involved locking six people in a room for sometimes 3-4 hours, each person pressing the right buttons at the right time. This process almost always had a glitch somewhere where someone forgot to run the right command or something wasn’t well tested beforehand. While some technical solutions were applied to handle configuration automation, nothing that could perform configuration could really accomplish that high level choreography on top as well. This is why I wrote Ansible.
Ansible is a configuration management, application deployment, and IT orchestration system. One of Ansible’s strong points is having a very simple, human readable language – it allows users very fine, precise control over what happens on what machines at what times.
To get started, create an inventory file, for instance, ~/ansible_hosts that defines what machines you are managing, and which machines are frequently organized into groups. Ansible can also pull inventory from multiple cloud sources, but an inventory file is a quick way to get started:
# add more webservers here
Now that you have defined what machines you are managing, you have to define what you are going to do on the remote machines.
Ansible calls this description of processes a “playbook,” and you don’t have to have just one, you could have different playbooks for different kinds of tasks.
Let’s look at an example for describing a rolling update process. This example is somewhat involved because it’s using haproxy, but haproxy is freely available. Ansible also includes modules for dealing with Netscalers and F5 load balancers, so this is just an example — ordinarily you would start more simply and work up to an example like this:
Velocity 2013 Speaker Series
If you’re a System Administrator, you’re likely all too familiar with the 2:35am PagerDuty alert. “When you roll out testing on your infrastructure,” says Seth Vargo, “the number of alerts drastically decreases because you can build tests right into your Chef cookbooks.” We sat down to discuss his upcoming talk at Velocity, which promises to deliver many more restful nights for SysAdmins.
Key highlights from our discussion include:
- There are not currently any standards regarding testing with Chef. [Discussed at 1:09]
- A recommended workflow that starts with unit testing [Discussed at 2:11]
- Moving cookbooks through a “pipeline” of testing with Test Kitchen [Discussed at 3:11]
- In the event that something bad does make it into production, you can roll back actual infrastructure changes. [Discussed at 4:54]
- Automating testing and cookbook uploads with Jenkins [Discussed at 5:40]
You can watch the full interview here: