Learning to Trust

The state of automation among enterprise operators has been a matter of some interest this year, with several firms undertaking studies of the space. Juniper, for instance, recently released the first yearly edition of the SONAR report, which surveyed many network operators to set a baseline for a better future understanding of how automation is being used. Another recent report in this area is Enterprise Network Automation for 2020 and Beyond, conducted by Enterprise Management Associates.

While these reports are, themselves, interesting for understanding the state of automation in the networking world, one correlation noted on page 13 of the EMA report caught my attention: “Individuals who primarily engage with automation as users are less likely to fully trust automation.” This observation is set in parallel with two others on that same page: “Enterprises that consider network automation a high priority initiative trust automation more,” and “Individuals who fully trust automation report significant improvement in change management capacity.” It seems somewhat obvious these three are related in some way, but how? The answer to this, I think, lies in the relationship between the person and the tool.

We often think of tools as “abstract objects,” a “thing” that is “out there in the world.” It’s something we use to get a particular result, but which does not, in turn, impact “me as a person” in any way. This view of tools is not born out in the real world. To illustrate, consider a simple situation: you are peacefully driving down the road when another driver runs a traffic signal, causing your two cars to collide. When you jump out of your car, do you say… “you caused your vehicle to hit mine?” Nope. You say: “you hit me.”

This kind of identification between the user and the tool is widely recognized and remarked. Going back to 1904, Thorstein Veblen writes that the “machine throws out anthropomorphic habits of thought,” forcing the worker to adapt to the work, rather than the work to the worker. Marshall McLuhan says Students of computer programming have had to learn how to approach all knowledge structurally,” shaping the way they information so the computer can store and process it.

What does any of this have to do with network automation and trust? Two things. First, the more “involved” you are with a tool, the more you will trust it. People trust hammers more than they do cars (in general) because the use of hammers is narrow, and the design and operation of the tool is fairly obvious. Cars, on the other hand, are complex; many people simply drive them, rather than learning how they work. If you go to a high speed or off-road driving course, the first thing you will be taught is how a car works. This is not an accident—in learning how a car works, you are learning to trust the tool. Second, the more you work with a tool, the more you will understand its limits, and hence the more you will know when you can, and cannot, trust it.

If you want to trust your network automation, don’t just be a user. Be an active participant in the tools you use. This explains the correlation between the level of trust, level of engagement, and level of improvement. The more you participate in the development of the tooling itself, and the more you work with the tools, the more you will be able to trust them. Increased trust will, in turn, result in increased productivity and effectiveness. To some degree, your way of thinking will be shaped to the tool—this is just a side effect of the way our minds work.

You can extend this lesson to all other areas of network engineering—for instance, if you want to trust your network, then you need to go beyond just configuring routing, and really learn how it works. This does not mean you need in depth knowledge of that particular implementation, nor does it mean knowing how every possible configuration option works in detail, but it does mean knowing how the protocol converges, what the limits to the protocol are, etc. Rinse and repeat for routers, storage systems, quality of service, etc.—and eventually you will not only be able to trust your tools, but also be very productive and effective with them.