According to Nicholas Carr in a recent WSJ essay, automation is making humans dumb. He’s got a point. As someone who’s worked for twenty years automating computer systems, I have noticed that some of the newer IT workers are less interested in what’s “under the hood”.

In the article, Mr. Carr cites several recent air disasters as evidence that over-automation has “de-skilled” pilots in manual flight technique. Also cited is the misdiagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to die of Ebola in the U.S. According to a recent paper published in the medical journal Diagnosis, “These highly constrained tools are optimized for data capture but at the expense of sacrificing their utility for appropriate triage and diagnosis, leading users to miss the forest for the trees.”

One analogy to this situation in the I.T. world is when a computer crashes, and the gal who wrote some automated software has left the company. Now a service has crashed, and no one knows how to fix it. Another analogous situation in I.T. is an over-reliance on GUI-based tools.

The proposed solution to this is “human-centered automation”, which keep humans in “the decision loop”. Mr. Carr writes, “Airlines, for example, could program cockpit computers to shift control back and forth between computer and pilot during a flight. By keeping the aviator alert and active, that small change could make flying even safer.”

With large data systems, monitoring and automation are essential. There’s no way humans can check the thousands of services that need to be checked every few minutes using Nagios or other monitoring software. But it is important that they understand what’s behind all the service checks that run. So the best mitigation is threefold:

  1. Good documentation: Document each service check and alert that runs in your monitoring system. Also document all automated processes.
  2. Good training: Conduct training sessions to instruct all of your staff on the workings of all automation monitoring systems
  3. Good practice: Build procedures which require your staff to manually run automated processes, and to, at random intervals, run manual checks of the same services that your monitoring system checks.

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