As IT environments grow more complex, companies are increasingly looking to automate business processes across myriad platforms. That’s fueling a demand for engineers who can tie it all together.
“Companies have been scheduling these processes manually or doing it through custom scripting, and inevitably they reach a tipping point where it becomes too much,” says Colin Beasty, marketing manager for automation vendor Advanced Systems Concepts. “[They’re looking for] a way to more easily build and automate these processes across different systems, different applications, different databases.”
That calls for a range of skills. An expert who focuses mostly on Unix, Linux or Microsoft, for example, can’t jump into a heterogeneous environment. So, Beasty says, “they’re looking for people who are more of a jack-of-all trades.” On the other hand, using job-scheduling software like ActiveBatch or other automation technology still requires some coding. That means skills in Python, Perl, PowerShell and other scripting languages are still in demand.
Often the people who take on automation jobs build integrations through command-line execution across platforms. And though more of Beasty’s customers are moving from mainframes to distributed computing, for now the landscape is a hodgepodge of solutions, IT professionals who are adept in both environments.
Who’s Using Automation
Whether or not a company is using automation is driven more by size than industry sector, Beasty says. Medium to large companies more likely to be active in the area. Automation is widely used in healthcare, financial services, manufacturing and transportation. As the Internet allows more companies to operate 24/7, more of the automated processes take place in real time.
Advanced Systems Concepts predicts that automation trends for 2013 will include more use of predictive analytics to forecast and plan workflows across systems and platforms, increased provisioning of cloud and virtual systems, and the implementation of self-service automation so that users can get things done without involving the IT department.
In a recent job posting, online shoe retailer Zappos described its need for a ystems automation engineer who can automate the coffee maker and then move on to everything else. Derek Fedel, the manager who wrote the ad, prefers to use the term “systems automation engineer” because “automation engineer” itself tends to be vague. “We put ‘systems’ because they’re kind of going to have their hand in everything,” he says. “Network automation, storage — everything.”
What’s “everything” mean? “This person will setting up basic management tasks, managing the servers and what-not, basic monitoring jobs, where previously we’d have people checking a screen to make sure everything’s good on a system, setting up new servers, automating all the processes that serve customers and our end users.”
He described the ideal candidate as someone who has been a systems administrator or engineer in retail, with a strong background in Python and who has written some automation tooling before. “We’ve had some applicants who have written some network automation for their current companies, and that’s really strong,” he said, adding, “Those candidates are few and far between.”
“We want people who just love putting the puzzle together and who just love the puzzle in general,” Fedel says.
Vast Potential in the Cloud
Though automation has been widely used in manufacturing and robotics, cloud computing is opening up a whole new range of possibilities, observes Ken Goldberg, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and editor-in-chief of the IEEE quarterly Transactions on Automation Science and Engineering.
“Traditionally, robots had a limited bandwidth, limited computing power,” Goldberg said in an interview. “But what if the cloud eliminates those limitations, produces unlimited bandwidth, unlimited computing power?”
“Automation and things like Big Data are really changing the landscape,” he adds. “Factors like the cloud, in my opinion, are primary.” One particular area worth keeping an eye one, Goldberg says, is the “Industrial Internet,” General Electrics’ term for connecting intelligent machines, advanced analytics and people at work to gain efficiency in sectors such as aviation, logistics and healthcare.
Across Industries, automation engineers made an average of $103,910 in 2012, an increase of $4,370, or 4.4 percent, over 2011, according to Automation.com. The breakdown for IT-related jobs:
- Application Engineering — $89,200
- Information Technology — $103,410
- Software Engineering — $96,590
- Networking/Communications Systems — $80,000
- OEM Product/Systems Engineering — $76,250
- Project Management — $111,220
- Research and Development — $101,670
- Technical/Application Support — $89,800
- Quality Control, Evaluation and Testing — $87,140