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How to tackle advanced IT automation projects: A 3-step plan

Torrey Jones Principal Consultant, GreenLight Group

If yours is like most IT organizations, your team is doing some form of automation (both in development and operations), even if you're just running simple scripts to accomplish basic tasks.

In fact, the best place to start your automation journey is with mundane, low-skill tasks such as password resets, account creation, backups, or new-server setup. But what should be next after you have automated these types of processes?

More advanced automation requires some effort, and receiving budget approval requires that you demonstrate value—especially given the costs. There are tons of automation technologies out there—including robotic process automation (RPA)—but each requires some combination of licensing, labor, and training resources.

Those costs can be quite high, so ensuring a short time to value is key if you want to show the CFO that you are spending your budget wisely. Here's how you get there.

Identify all potential candidates

The best way to determine what to automate next is to first identify which complex IT processes you could automate. Things on this list might include deployment of a software application from beginning to end, automatically provisioning and deprovisioning servers based on load, or even deploying a server and automatically adding it to monitoring, application maps, security scans, and so on.

Organizations doing more development should be looking at ways to automate their CI/CD pipeline and their testing.

Prioritize your list

Once you have created your list, look for the things that happen most frequently and work your way down from there. These may be firewall rule changes or even full application server deployments. Whatever it is, if it is used frequently, it will have the highest immediate ROI.

Next, consider whether the project can build on smaller automated processes you already have in place, which means you won't have to start from scratch. That represents a huge cost savings on the R&D front and will make getting a fast ROI easier.

You may have a long list of things left to potentially automate, but not all will have a fast ROI. Also consider that the projects with the fastest ROI will differ from company to company and industry to industry. More complex candidates for automation could take extensive R&D, which means if they aren't frequently used, you are looking at months or even years before you see a return.

Combine the building blocks

As you proceed and choose which things to automate, think of each automation you build as a building block, then think about how you can combine them to build more elaborate automated processes.

For example, one block might give you the ability to connect to a REST API, while another runs a script. Put a few blocks together and suddenly you've built the automation necessary to create a new server.

Another group of blocks, when assembled together, might install a monitoring agent on a server. Now take both of those, add a couple of blocks to connect them, and suddenly you have an even more complex automation flow without much additional effort.

Here's another example: If you already can provision a server, install software, and deploy software updates with your CI/CD pipeline, you can quickly combine all of them to deploy with a single click a server with a specific version of developed code you want to run. This could save hours and allow for your DevOps teams to quickly test bugs on different versions of your code.

You also don't have to weave together complete pieces of automation. There may be bits of one automation flow you can reuse without needing the rest of it. Assembling automation building blocks is similar to coding in this regard. You take a few lines from here, a few lines from there, add your own bit of code, and you have a new script.

Building on what you have allows you to turn past successes into additional cost savings. Being able to see the building blocks available to you and how to put them together with the least amount of effort is an art—one that, once mastered, lets you experience the kinds of automation benefits and ROI that you read about.

Now put it all together

Taking your automation to the next level is a matter of following these five key steps:

  1. Identify the most frequent tasks that are not automated.
  2. Figure out which pieces of those tasks are already automated or where you can reuse automation flows from other tasks.
  3. Create the pieces that are new.
  4. Combine all the ingredients into one workflow.
  5. Repeat for as many items as you have budget for.

Do this and you will be well on your way to building the kinds of sophisticated process automation projects that deliver a strong ROI and earn the approval of the CFO's office.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help. There are plenty of experts out there who specialize in high-value automation.

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