Tiny Rudder on a Large Ship: Driving Organizational Change

I’ve been wanting to do this for some time now. Over the years, working in both the operations realm and in software development, big themes seems to present themselves. These themes are always in the back of my head, but I haven’t had a place to write them down or share them with others. After a long time, I have finally decided to launch MaherCode.io.

As I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about for that first “initial post”, many different ideas were circling through my brain. First it was ideas surrounding code, but I didn’t want to start swinging for the geeky fences right away, so I opted to share a personal story of my journey in this field and learning how to deal with big changes.

My career could be summed up as existing in three IT/developer pillars: healthcare, finance, and aviation. The first being my foundation, the place where I grew up. That would be in the world of healthcare IT. I spent the beginning of my career as a desktop technician intern at local hospital in Seattle at the age of 16. This is an opportunity I will always look at fondly. Having always been interested in technology, this was a incredible first job, and taught me at a young age the joys and complexities of working in a large IT shop. It was at this age I was exposed to the challenges of organizational bureaucracy. Too often it was easy to come up with a cool new idea of ways to improve a process, or help make things more efficient, but find that those ideas would get immediately shot down under the dreaded mantra “we have always done it this way”. Oh well, through years of working in the non-profit healthcare world, one learns to be creative and I am forever thankful for the time I spent at the hospital, eventually working up from desktop intern to systems engineer. I learned the importance of innovation, as budgets often dictated the needs for creativity when other solutions were out of reach.

The second pillar, the smallest of the three, was time spent in the industry of high finance. Wow, talk about a difference in business style from non-profit healthcare. Instead of adhering to super strict budgets, there was appeasing shareholders and those invested in the company. Dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on servers was something you’d do without blinking an eye. This was a wonderful place to grow and learn. It was, however, an atmosphere I didn’t long to be in for an extended period of time. I never felt “at home” in the financial space, and it wasn’t until my third pillar that I found my niche.

The third pillar was with Alaska Airlines. This is a place that I truly love and where I am challenged every single day (something I’ve wanted desperately my entire career). One thing I missed about my crew at the hospital was the genuine comradely I had there, and at Alaska, I have that again. The atmosphere at Alaska is one of collaboration. Never do I hesitate helping a coworker with an issue or in turn, never feeling fearful of asking questions myself. This atmosphere really brings together things from both the non-profit healthcare and high finance worlds that I loved: collaboration and resources needed to get things done.

There is always the other side of the coin, the issues that every company, no matter how wonderful, faces. The issue that I feel we face now, and one that so many of my friends in the automation world feel as well, is that of resistance. Automation gets a bad rap by those who don’t understand what it really means. Some fear automation, understanding it to be the beginning of the end for their jobs. Others look at automation as a hassle, something more difficult to implement than the job being looked at automating. These challenges can be often overcome with some honest conversations and lots of promoting, helping to demonstrate the excitement of automation.

This biggest hurdle that I have found in large organizations is the time it takes to adopt automation and the blending of the operations and developer worlds. Alaska Air is a large organization, and when people ask me how my job goes, I often reply with “we are the like the small rudder on a really big ship“. This essentially means that driving change requires a commitment, one that will take time, but will ultimately get us where we want to go. On the team that I work on, we are slowly but effectively chipping away at this in the organization. Part of our strategy is engaging teams of engineers and developers, often whose software and processes are very time intensive or require a lot of manual interaction. When we start to show our automation offerings, you can almost universally see the excitement in their eyes. When that “ah ha!” moment happens, when people really get it, that’s when we start seeing the ship move just a little bit towards our destination.

This was a lot of rambling, and I promise not to do too much of this moving forward. Truly my passion is sharing information and code, as open source is my love. This being said, I want to encourage all of those in this field to not give up, especially if you’re coming from a small shop, or startup, where rapid change is expected and you find yourself perched on a huge ship. Changes can happen, they just take time and determination. My father has a couple of wonderful quotes that he has shared with me over the years. One I can safely attribute to him, and it really speaks to our work as automation engineers:

“Persistence, especially in the face of adversity, is the key to success” – Denny Maher