Automation: The Best Roads Are the Curvy Ones


Not surprisingly, you need processes before you can automate them, which is often the first hurdle customers encounter: there is no agreed upon way to do things. How Lilly configures an L3 VPN might be different from how Pat does it, but a team needs to converge on the best way to do something and that can lead to some, um, passionate discussions. As you work to automate more of your operational and business processes, the same dynamic plays out repeatedly as you get more teams and more stakeholders involved, so it's important to set expectations with participants and stakeholders up front that the road ahead will be a bit bumpy.

There is often an urge to justify automation by showing a massive win on your first outing. Resist that urge. The worst thing you can do is try to automate an entire business process at one time. Instead, take a business workflow and break it into smaller steps and work at automating each step. Implement things, get quick wins to build confidence, and learn how to do it better next time. Over time, start stitching these smaller efforts together. This gives your team time to learn the tools, test the processes, and learn how to work together.

Fair warning: not every one of your process can be automated. The way your org accomplishes a task may not lend itself to automation and trying to force it to be automated will likely not end well, especially when you are starting out. However, bear in mind, a market peer that can automate something you are still doing manually will inevitably gain a competitive advantage over you. Long term it's worth striving on re-working your processes so that they are all automatable.

Org structure

Conway's Law states that "[a]ny organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure." This is not great for product design and it's equally undesirable for workflow design. If teams only interact through their leaders, it not only slows down design and implementation of new processes, its fatal to fast and effective troubleshooting, problem resolution and improvement of those process once they are in production. We've also shown how tools like NSO can provide a technology solution to keep the peace, but it's also imperative that there are short, clear communication pathways between the folks that have operational responsibility.

Beyond the individual operational domains involved in a process or workflow, there also needs to be someone that has the mandate to provide governance and coordination across these various teams—think conductor for an orchestra. Again, this role is not only important when developing and implementing automation workflows, but also once they are in production, this person (or team) are often on the front line for user experience issues—someone needs to own the big picture.


This last one is for the leaders reading this: your people will continue to be a critical part of your automation strategy. With that in mind, make them part of the process—your automation projects feel like something done with them not to them. The folks that live with your infrastructure day-to-day know where the opportunities are, where the easy wins are, and where the landmines are buried. Just as important, train your teams, not just on the technologies, but also on the mindset. Concepts like DevOps, Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) and infrastructure-as-code are as much about mindset and culture as they are about a specific toolset.

Ironically, this is an area where contractor and professional services come in handy—they can help bridge your operational expertise bringing in best practices until your own team comes up to speed.

In closing

Organization-scale automation is absolutely a navigable journey and it's most definitely worth making the trip. But, like anything worthwhile, it will take some work. I hope these two posts have given you some things to think about. In terms of other resources, check out our Network Automation Deployment Model (NADM). The NSO team has spent close to a decade automating some of the most demanding networks on the planet and the model was a way to share their experiences and best practices back with the community.

– Omar Sultan, Leader, NSO/ESC Product Management, Cisco Systems

This content is sponsored by Cisco.

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)

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