Make yourself useless

Some people invent ‘work’ to justify their jobs. Jim Highsmith, one of the signatories of the Agile Manifesto, called these “…Dilbert manifestations of make-work…” Pretend-work exists because corporations only retain employees if they appear to be doing something valuable. DevOps flips this paradigm on its head. The engineer who appears to be doing nothing is probably doing a great job.  

Until recently, few corporations had systems to measure knowledge work, so make-workers coasted into middle management. There, they built imaginary fires and roasted marshmallows while underlings fought the flames. The cultural message was, “Make yourself look useful.”

DevOps is radical because it demands the exact opposite. “Make yourself useless” is the apex of automation. If you’re making work, you’re doing it all wrong.

Roshan Duraisamy, a 17-year DevOps practitioner and Senior Director of Engineering at MobileIron, talks about this idea in our new ebook, Contested Development.  In Roshan’s words, “The best indicator of a successful practice is that the CI/CD engineer has nothing to do.”

If you have nothing to do though, how do you stay employed? Glenn Trattner, COO of Quantum Metric, would tell you not to worry. There is always something else – something you must do but hate doing. That frustration keeps the DevOps engineer motivated and extremely useful to the company. Glenn describes the process this way:

“What did you do today that was manual? What didn’t you like doing? What task was most annoying? Figure out how to automate it. Tomorrow, you’ll do something else that’s annoying and that you never want to do again. Automate that too.”

That is how DevOps engineers work their way towards uselessness. It’s not like DevOps folks try to hide this fact. Kevin Brinnehl, DevOps and Platforms Services Manager at Widen Enterprises, told us, “I joke with fellow DevOps people that I got into it because I get bored easily and I like to be lazy.”

Now that would be one hell of an answer in a job interview. If anyone says that, hire the person immediately.

If you think about it, people with technical skills could easily create make-work. Unless you were an engineer, how would you know the DevOps crew wasn’t making things harder than they need to be just to seem indispensable? Because you’ve hired people who are proud of becoming useless.

At one company, Roshan says that every other build broke. After his handiwork, they completed projects without a single breakage. “It was time to switch jobs because I had nothing left to do,” said Roshan.

The DevOps engineers we interviewed had this relentless drive to automate. They’d never make it in a Dilbertesque environment where the appearance of work eclipses its purpose.

By this point, you might be wondering how uselessness became so useful. If so, check out our ebook, Contested Development. For a book about uselessness, it’s pretty useful.

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Maxwell Traers
Maxwell Traers
Technical Content Contributor, Cprime