Finding the Flow State in IT Operations

Will Cappelli | Thursday January 3 2019

There are new ways to reduce stress, confusion, and tedium in the trenches of IT.

Finding the Flow State in IT Operations

Let’s face it: even if you’re not on call and responding to incidents at 2 am, pulling your hair out after the dev team’s latest buggy deploy, working in the world of ITOM can be profoundly stressful—rife with a seemingly endless series of thankless tasks.  It can also be mind-numbingly tedious, with rote tasks and repeat problems defining too many hours of one’s workdays.

So what’s a stressed or depressed IT operator to do?

Trying to understand what’s actually going on, practically and psychologically, is usually the best place to start.  Sufficiently defining a problem can usually bring one that much closer to a solution.

Overwhelmed and Flying Blind

Let’s start by defining stress, or the general feeling of anxiety and overwhelm that most people working in IT, I’m sure, can readily relate to.  According to the World Health Organization, “Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands … that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.”  

A workers union in the UK notes that work-related stress “is not the same as pressure.  We experience pressure every day, and it motivates us to perform at our best.  It’s when we experience too much pressure without the opportunity to recover that we start to experience stress.”  (They also point out that, in the UK, “12.5 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2016/17,” which costs businesses, collectively, an estimated £8.4 billion GBP annually.)

In other words, some degree of pressure and anxiety at work can be positive and inspiring, keeping one creatively engaged.  But too much of a good thing, without sufficient breaks, can lead to IT burnout. And if one is being asked to do more than one has the knowledge and abilities to handle, it makes matters even worse.  

Yet these days, who isn’t being asked to do more than they can handle?  Nearly everyone in ITOps and incident management is in over their head, day after day, because of the sheer lack of visibility they experience due to increasingly complex, modular, often virtual-and-temporary technology stacks and ever-rising data lakes.  Daily enterprise data volumes now exceed any possibility of mere mortal comprehension.  In fact, because of the extent to which so many in IT ops, support, and admin roles are largely flying blind—mostly treating symptoms they glimpse through the noise and rarely able to fathom cures—I’d wager that anyone who isn’t a little stressed out is in denial.

Either that, or they’re maybe too bored and depressed by the tape-jockey tedium of performing the same rote tasks and applying the same kinds of band-aids, day after day, that they don’t care enough about their work to feel stressed anymore.  

But here’s the good news: It really doesn’t have to be this way.

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By utilizing genuine machine-learning AI, incident-management and RCA tools such as Moogsoft AIOps liberate sysops’ time, energy, and attention, freeing them up to apply their skills and experience to more interesting, strategic, and genuinely creative IT projects.  

Better Living Through Creative Engagement

In 1990 the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which detailed the results of his decades of research into how people manage to achieve states of happiness and wellbeing by transcending the common stressed-or-depressed, anxious-or-bored dialectic.  He called that third way “optimal experience,” or “flow,” defining it as a state of consciousness where one is so fully engaged with an enjoyable activity that nothing else seems to matter while it lasts.  Athletes typically call it “being in the zone.”

The chart below captures the essence of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.  It depicts a psychological condition in which one’s skill level meets a challenging task, and the two factors perfectly align to create a steady stream of joyful creative engagement.  If the challenge exceeds one’s skills or capacities, fear and anxiety arise, which leads to stress. If the challenge isn’t challenging enough to make full use of one’s skills or capacities, boredom results, which can lead to depression over time.

 

Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.

As Csikszentmihalyi writes, “It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator.”

It might also be what an IT operator used to regularly experience, back in the day, when skillfully comparing current system performance against a snapshot to successfully spot the root cause of an issue.  Today one feels lucky if the actual source of issues can be identified with reasonable accuracy at all. Still, for those in IT using sufficiently robust automated monitoring tools, it should be possible to experience blissful moments of on-the-job flow—when everything just works, and even complex problems can be identified quickly enough and confidently resolved.

Those peak experiences do happen in modern ITOps environments, and they’re great while they last.  The problem is, if those flow states don’t happen frequently enough to make IT staff look forward to coming to work every day, then the old overwhelm-versus-underwhelm dichotomy is still clearly running the show, leaving employees unhappy and unfulfilled more often than not.  

Many of today’s IT automation technologies simply don’t make work as satisfying as they should.  They tend to either generate too much data for the humans at the helm to adequately sift through, overwhelming ops teams with noise, or they generate too many alerts that require people to engage in repetitive rituals of daily system maintenance that, in an ideal world, would be better left for machines to resolve on their own.

The AIOps Solution

Fortunately, some newer machines can resolve those tedious details on their own—and they can do so while also dramatically reducing the amount of noise that IT operators ever need to see.  

By utilizing genuine machine-learning AI, incident-management and RCA tools such as Moogsoft AIOps liberate sysops’ time, energy, and attention, freeing them up to apply their skills and experience to more interesting, strategic, and genuinely creative IT projects.  The sea of data becomes reasonably manageable; the daily tedium starts to disappear. The biggest sources of overwhelm and underwhelm for ITOps professionals become manageable, potentially positioning them for at least a fairly regular immersion in that perfect middle place of flow.  Doesn’t just contemplating such a possibility make you happier already?

Moogsoft is a pioneer and leading provider of AIOps solutions that help IT teams work faster and smarter. With patented AI analyzing billions of events daily across the world’s most complex IT environments, the Moogsoft AIOps platform helps the world’s top enterprises avoid outages, automate service assurance, and accelerate digital transformation initiatives.

Will Cappelli

About the Author

Will studied math and philosophy at university, has been involved in the IT industry for over 30 years, and for most of his professional life has focused on both AI and IT operations management technology and practises. As an analyst at Gartner he is widely credited for having been the first to define the AIOps market and has recently joined Moogsoft as CTO, EMEA and VP of Product Strategy. In his spare time, he dabbles in ancient languages.

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