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Find balance in a configuration management role

Configuration management specialists have to know the rules and know when to break them. Here's how to get developers, IT staff and project owners on your side.

Not all IT personnel are configuration management experts, but configuration management is increasingly key to keeping complex IT systems online and available.

IT operations staff are often breaking configuration management guidelines rather than supporting them. It's not completely their fault. Management allocates limited time to complete IT projects and can cut corners on scheduling. Successful configuration management is not about stopping all changes; in almost all cases, barriers force people to find more inventive ways to sneak in changes and get their jobs done. The configuration management role is equal parts gate keeper and rule bender. It encourages change within guidelines and documentation, with changes properly tested and scheduled. This approach can be hard, but it's critical to the success of the change management role.

Configuration management is not something that one can simply take for granted. In fact, it takes some special skills to do it right. With so much riding on IT systems, doing it right is more critical than ever.

Find middle ground

A configuration management professional's role is not to stop people from getting their job done, no matter what they say. Your role, while enforcing some guidelines, is to keep systems that are constantly in change secure and reliable for users.

Part of the configuration management role is to create necessary rules; a much larger portion of the role is to analyze the impact of change. Every patch, update or outage creates a ripple effect -- even choosing to make no change at all has an effect. A configuration management expert takes all possibilities into consideration as she works with developers and infrastructure personnel to satisfy everyone's needs and keep management happy.

Configuration management specialists gravitate to policies and procedures, but that is not the entire scope of the role. Develop skills as a detective to find changes, and as an analyst to predict the effects of those changes. And finally, get comfortable balancing everything from disparate groups -- configuration management is a high-wire act of moving things forward while keeping production running and secure. While their aims differ, no group wants to put out a bad product or break rules for the sake of breaking rules. Understand their needs and deadlines, and enlist their help to ensure change stays on track within typically a narrow time frame.

Shades of gray

The configuration management role calls for balancing key controllable items with what must get done. If you look at a nonstandard item, such as a rogue application, you cannot simply remove it because it could be doing important work. A rogue app is not by default unnecessary, but was simply not properly put through the system -- now your job is to help the owner do just that.

A configuration management specialist can identify, analyze and document the rogue app and its effect within the organization, determining how far outside of compliance the current situation is. After that, you need to determine the steps to move it into a configuration management process or safely remove it from the infrastructure. While the rules for compliant configurations are typically black and white, enforcement is a gray area.

IT projects and environments harbor many gray areas -- project scope creep is one classic example. When a project is a long-term effort or has many resources devoted to it, scope creep can and most likely will happen. Small suggested changes are often minor, but as the sheer collection of changes grows, it creates a staggering effect on the project's cost and devoted effort. This is where the configuration management role comes into play.

Not all changes in a project are bad -- some can be quite good and necessary -- but it takes someone looking outside of the change itself to help make that determination of what should and what shouldn't be done. The real strength of the configuration management role is in your ability to provide an objective view.

Next Steps

Modern, complex IT systems require a level of automation for changes and configuration control. Consider developing system programmer skills and, as is necessary in many IT roles, capabilities around spreadsheets and databases. For DevOps shops, configuration management skills go hand in hand with automation and infrastructure as code.

This was last published in February 2017

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