Wanna keep your IT job? Master automation

Although many factors shape your employment prospects, automation via PowerShell may make you indispensable

It's 5 a.m. I've been working way too long on a new feature of Exchange and SharePoint 2013 called site mailboxes, meant to improve collaboration by letting users connect to a team mailbox (through a browser) with storage shared between Exchange and SharePoint. The configuration is extremely complex: It requires expert understanding of both Exchange and SharePoint 2013, as well as every networking skill imaginable, from DNS configuration to certificate services. And yes, PowerShell scripts (thankfully already written) are essential to successful configuration.

As I plod through the prerequisites and configuration (to my ultimate success in the wee hours of the morning), I kept hearing in my head a line from one of the articles I've read on the subject by Exchange MVP Tony Redmond: "After much effort and a fair amount of swearing, I concluded that this activity is a prime candidate for automation."

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How true -- this, like many aspects in the world of IT, could do with more automation. As an IT professional, you have the choice of sitting back and waiting for someone else to make it happen or finding ways to do it yourself. In fact, your future may depend on your ability to automate. As PowerShell MVP Don Jones said in a recent presentation, IT pros need to focus on automation or risk early retirement.

What do I mean by automation? In this context, it's the ability to take complicated or time-consuming tasks for IT admins and simplify them either through a set of precanned services or through the ability to script a process with a tool like PowerShell.

Microsoft System Center's Orchestrator is an example of a precanned service. Take an example from Greg Shields, a virtualization MVP: Admins today still use Active Directory's Users and Computers function to add users to Active Directory instead of giving that ability to the HR department. It's true that in 2000, when Active Directory first came out, you wouldn't think of doing that. But now you can use System Center Orchestrator and other workflow tools for identity management to let others do the work. Shields says "it only takes a little up-front automation effort [such as with Orchestrator] to pay long-term efficiency dividends."

Many in IT fear automation: If you automate a task you perform, you make yourself dispensable, right? Let me clue you in on a serious truth: If you don't evolve, you will indeed be dispensable. Windows systems have become so easy to install and configure that many newbies coming into the workforce can replace you. They are armed with a lifetime of Internet searching skills and can Google just about anything. They can handle virtualization, Active Directory, Group Policy, and more through a simple search.

It's those deeper tools like Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, and SQL that still give you an edge. If you add an understanding of System Center, you'll be even further protected. But not for long -- everything that used to be hard has now been made into step-by-step guides, videos, and so on. The deeper tools that provide IT admins job security today will eventually follow this path too.

If you really want to ensure you have a place to call "work," you must stop fighting the need to learn PowerShell.

PowerShell is not your enemy. It's your ticket to employment. If I didn't know PowerShell, I would never have been able to get Exchange and SharePoint to trust each other and enable that site mailbox feature I described at the beginning of this post. I promise you that a newbie IT admin wouldn't be able to get this capability to work -- but neither would a veteran if he or she wasn't a PowerShell master.

It's not enough to just be proficient or simply get by with PowerShell to remain relevant in the modern enterprise Windows environment. You need to master it. PowerShell provides the capability to script, using .ps1 scripts that you either borrow and tweak or write from scratch. These scripts automate processes and, in doing so, make your workload more manageable while at the same time casting you as indispensable and the one who knows how to get it all working.

Is automation the only gap I see in modern IT admins' ability to thrive in their jobs over the long term? Not at all. But it's a big one you can immediately rectify with a little research, an online class, some video training, a book, or a conference.

If you want a long-term career as an IT admin, focus your education on System Center and PowerShell.

This story, "Wanna keep your IT job? Master automation," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.