Much has been made of the difference between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) when it comes to the industrial internet of things. The big tech companies have come into the space with their gateways, clouds and wireless networks, sometimes without understanding that for the OT world, automation has been happening for a long time.
In many cases what’s new isn’t the sensors, but the data analytics and ability to start reacting in real time to that data to add more automation. As the IT world grasps what the industrial world wants, providers are spending more time discussing edge computing, security and service level agreements.
But when I travel between the two worlds, people are still baffled by the industrial guys. These are the operational technicians who keep parts functioning, lay wire and generally ensure that all the bits and bobs of whatever automated system continue to work. These technicians have been doing this for decades. It’s what they are paid to do: keep the plant operational.
They frustrate the heck out of any new manager hoping to come in and add mobile apps or IoT analytics to the floor. In a conversation with one such executive who manages a team of OT and IT staffers, he derided the operational guys as DOUGs. It stands for dumb, old utility guys. As in, we wanted to see if we could get our sensors to report an additional data point, but the DOUGs didn’t want us to touch them.
I laughed, but I realized that it wasn’t the DOUGs that were the problem. Litterally their entire job is to build something that works and keep it running no matter what the world throws at it. If you are a lineman for the phone company or a utility and a line gets knocked out, you grab a truck and put it back.
On a manufacturing floor, you add new devices and processes slowly with an eye toward ensuring that nothing breaks and the end product isn’t screwed up. Intellectually we get this. But that is why DOUGs are such a pain in my friend’s butt. Operational guys keep things operating. They don’t think up new features or strive for continual deployment of new services.
They keep the lights on.
Meanwhile in the software world, those who “move fast and break things,” get ahead. Their focus is on agile delivery of new features. Even the emphasis on the cloud a little over a decade ago was all about freeing up operational resources so the IT staff could move quickly and adapt.
Think about your favorite software. I bet it has crashed at some point. Or your last Skype call. Or the last time you had to reboot a modem to get things working again. It’s not to say that technology doesn’t work, but when things fail, the goal is to fix it and get back up again quickly without too much fuss. And the repercussions for failure have historically been low.
But as IT meets the real world, the repercussions for failure are much higher. Consider the real-world effect that computer issues can have on the airline industry — halting travel. Or consider Chrysler’s software error that could prevent airbags from deploying and led to a massive recall in 2017. For as much as the IT world values continuous improvement code, disruption and agility, when the code hits the road lives or livelihoods are at stake.
So as frustrating as the DOUGs are, as we push more IT into OT processes, it’s worth viewing their perspective. Sometimes changing something isn’t as useful as just keeping something up and running. Sometimes moving fast and breaking something is a really dumb thing to do.
And for those in charge of trying to blend IT and OT, maybe understanding the DOUGs will help you succeed in your next project.