Automation, Orchestration and Increasing the value of Human Capital

Automation and orchestration is a particularly hot topic these days, and with good reason. We are reaching a sort of critical mass in the expansion of software and infrastructure development. There are buzzwords flying about with the wide acceptance as Software Defined <insert technology here> because there is a fundamental shift in how we are looking at deploying and managing our environments.

Human Capital and the Limit of the FTE

When we estimate a project, or a task, we typically use the FTE (Full Time Equivalent) as a measure of the amount of person time it will take to complete that task. This is a linear scale that we have used since the first time that we had to estimate or track how long it took to complete a particular project.

Human Capital is a term that embodies the capabilities, knowledge and competency that is able to produce work and product. As an IT or business organization, we are built upon the human capital that we have with our workforce. The distinct advantage that we are given with technology is that we can use human capital to create a product which will be able to continue to create product without the re-injection of that human capital.

What does that mean? Effectively, we create the robots to continue the linear effort so that we can continue to work on adding value with innovation. This is where automation and orchestration are really hitting their stride.

More People does not always equal more product

The phrase that I’ve been using lately when describing to project management and organizational leaders on product timelines is all around the issue of adding people to increase the rate of production. The truth is that we cannot always get a linear value back by throwing more people at a situation.

This is how it is beautifully summed up:

You can’t combine nine women together and make a baby in one month.

It really is that simple. Some processes (especially systems development) are not able to increase at a linear rate by adding more people. If it takes 10 days to complete a feature in the product, you can’t add ten developers and make it happen in one day. There are some processes that don’t scale out with adding resources.

Increasing value through automation and orchestration

In order to free up our people resources to contribute and grow the value of their human capital, we add better processes to free them up to innovate and do what they do best.

As a Systems Architect, I find more and more that I add the best value by leading the way with automation, scripting, and orchestration to enable the people who were typically doing those tasks manually to be able to both do other things, and to grow their own value by taking the reins with orchestration products.

How do we get started?

The first step of any process improvement is to¬†understand the process that you are trying to improve. Having a full view of what it is that we are trying to do, we can then take the workflow and translate that to an orchestration framework. Some processes are not able to be fully automated, but that’s not a problem. Any level of automation that we can add into the workflow is a step in the right direction.

Choose a process that you see as a time eater, and really take the time to whiteboard out what the workflow looks like and then from there you can begin to add the scripting and automation in steps to get to your final goal.

Visualization, Whiteboard and Kanban

If you don’t have a physical whiteboard, find a virtual one. You can use pen and paper if needed to get started. The idea is to take the time to visualize the workflow so that you can break down the steps and effectively target the orchestration process piece by piece. Every step that is broken down on the whiteboard is now able to be targeted effectively.

Kanban is a great way to visualize your workloads and I can personally say that it has increased effectiveness in delivery in nearly every situation that I coach people to use this method.


Using Kanban for development, infrastructure management and even personal time and process management is a great way to increase the success level of reaching your goals in my opinion. And when used effectively, that thought is backed by fact.

Let the runbook be your documentation

Regarding documentation, I see these very common and unavoidable trends:

  • Not Documenting – often seen as taking too much time, people find it easier to just “do the task” rather than document to share out the process.
  • Documentation becomes stale – we write great documentation, but at the moment that it is saved it’s static. Any change to the process requires revisiting the document which either doesn’t happen, or somebody prints the document to refer to it offline without checking back to the source document to see that it may have been changed since printing.
  • Humans don’t follow documentation – you can’t deny that this happens. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we fail to follow the documentation. If you don’t believe me, think highway speed limits: clearly documented, but we all assume we can go a little bit offside without penalty. It happens in your business and IT processes too.

The added bonus of using an orchestration framework (such as Puppet, vCloud Automation Center, vCenter Orchestrator, Chef) is that by creating the runbook inside your product, the runbook becomes the documentation. It is a living, consistently accurate portrayal of the process.

Using version control adds the next layer in being able to view the changes that occurred along the way as the organic process has grown and adapted to change.

By using the orchestration framework, nobody can ever be accused of not following the documentation, because the moment that they initiated the workflow, say to deploy a web server, the process is exactly the same as everyone else who runs it, and it is always current.

Adding stateful management of your platforms with tools like Puppet becomes the icing on the cake because you can ensure that continued operation of your environment is compliant and follows the process.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in this and I’ve got some cool projects coming down the pipe that I’ll be sharing with you to help to show how orchestration became a great way to increase value.

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