Sunday, 5 March 2017

Better tools do not make better engineers

In these days of DevOps, we have so many tools available to us. From configuration management, to NoSQL databases to containers and orchestration. And under open source, many are available at no cost. While the tools work may solve predominately technical problems, I believe that a significant proportion of the problem in making better systems solutions, are human.

A common issue I've seen is not understanding enough about what problem needs to be solved in the first place. But there seems to be a new tool that Sometimes the problem can inadvertently become "How can we implement technology X in our business?" rather than "How can the implementation of X help this business?".

In my team we've discussed whether we should migrate from Puppet to Ansible. Some people say Puppet is slow, complicated and hard to make reliable. If the criticisms are true, then we have the opportunity to be more productive by migrating. If they are not true, then the migration will cost a lot of time only to end up in a similar place. When faced with a problem that looks like it might be solved by the implementation of a new tool, there a few key questions we should be asking ourselves.

  • Is the problem with the current technology or it's implementation?
    • Consider best practices, whether the design is appropriate for the problem faced, whether extensions to the tech (plugins, libraries, hardware) would solve the problem better.
  • Are the problems solved in a more recent version of the tool?
    • The most common issues with a tool are often known by the organisation behind it, sometimes a fix is in a more recent version or it may be on the development roadmap.
  • How would the cost of migration be offset by the benefits of the new technology?
    • Costs include the training of staff, the development of new workflows (if required) and the time it takes to develop replacement solutions
  • Is the new tool weak in places where the old tool is strong?
    • While the benefits of the successor are touted well, the things it does not do as well may be harder to find. Often such problems are not evident until the migration has started.
The weighting given the questions will change depending on your resources such as time, money, skills, and attitude but I believe they are still valid in most cases. They are not reasons not to change, but appropriate consideration will make it easier to plan for any change and ensure the benefits are realised.

There are issues with every technology but I don't think shifting every time something shiny comes along will make us better engineers. It is often in overcoming challenges that we improve our skill in engineering. Our creativity and understanding of technology are both developed when we persevere with problems. Even if we ultimately fail to solve them the way we like, we still gain by understanding more about what is required for the solution. This way, when we do need to take a technological step forward, we can be confident we're heading in the right direction.