February 8th, 2007 - by Golgotha

In my first post on Search-This, I said I was going to write about how to improve your productivity on the job. Here's the first post in that series.

I'm a big believer in automation, as are most programmers (even if they don't know it). Some people are afraid of automation, citing concerns such as “what if it goes wrong?” or “will my entire job be replaced if I go too far with automation?”. My answers to the following are:

What if it goes wrong?

Just because human eyes are watching a particular manual process doesn't mean that errors won't happen. There's even a widely-used term for it: human error. A computer program will only do what's instructed of it. If your program is written well enough, it will perform its job perfectly every time it is called. Yes, the onus is on you the programmer to write code that won't screw up, but there's a reason you test your programs before deploying them!

Will my entire job be replaced if I go too far with automation?

No! If anything, it gives you time to work on more interesting or challenging things. And someone still has to maintain the programs that do the automation, that person most likely being you, the original programmer. If you're running a good business, there will always be more work around for you to

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So how do I know when I can automate a process?

And here's the meat of the post. My rule of thumb is: if I have to do something more than 3 times, then it's something I should try to automate. My reasoning? The first or second time I do something, I usually don't know if it's going to be an ongoing thing. By the third time, I can safely assume it's an ongoing process and that the time I spend writing a program to do the job will be less than the time I'd spend if I continued with a manual process. Of course, if on the third time you're told “we're only going to do this one more time”, you probably shouldn't bother writing anything up.

Okay, but I need some kind of example!

Sure thing. I manage a company's website, including posting new content like events and speaking engagements. A list of 50 or so speaking engagements is given to me every 3 months to post onto the website. This

is given to me by the company as an Excel file, but their site content is stored in a database. Their Excel document doesn't match the database table scheme perfectly, so I can't do a straight data import. A regular interface where each record is added individually also wouldn't

work, because many of these events are scheduled at once. Posting them one by one would really slow down the process.

The first couple of times I got the spreadsheet, I would copy/paste the data into the database manually, or whip the text into shape by hand and then do an import to the database, which took about 30 minutes or so each time. By the third time, I knew what was coming and I knew this process would be ongoing (and I also knew that the format of the Excel file would not change), so I wrote a Ruby script to parse the Excel file's fields for the text I needed and insert the records into the database directly. Writing and testing the script took about 90 minutes, but the script itself takes less than a minute to execute. My time investment is repaid after the third time I run this.

Going Further

When I get more time available, I plan on providing a web version of this script for the company to update the data themselves by just uploading the Excel file. That cuts out another step in the process for me (receiving the file to run the script) and is a better use of the company employee's time, because in the same amount of time it would take him or her to write the e-mail to me, they can already have their information up on the site for everyone to see.

Conclusion

Sometimes we get so used to doing things the same way, we forget that we can improve things around us. Take a look around for the next few days at work and find a process you can improve on or automate. The time you invest is sure to pay off in the future.

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5 Responses to “Automate Your Workday: Identifying Potential Opportunities”

1 cpradio

I don’t know how many times I have written C#, batch, DTS Packages or similar programs to take care of my tedious tasks.

I even went so far to write a program that would build my bulletins for me to send out to users notifying them of the changes I was putting into production. Part of that was to ensure I wrote useful comments when checking in my files and the other so I wouldn’t spend an hour or two writing up the information and trying to recall everything I did in the past two weeks to a month.

I am trying to get into Ruby, but just haven’t had the time to sit through the book I got and work out the examples. Maybe one day, I will no longer have batch scripts lying around.

Matt

2 Golgotha

I’ll try and keep a look out this week to see if I can automate any parts of my life, but as of right now, I don’t see any areas of redundancy.

Unless, you know of a way to automate showering, shaving, and getting my Starbucks!
Makes me think of the Jetsons. You’re all probably too young to know the Jetsons…

3 vinnie

“Unless, you know of a way to automate showering, shaving, and getting my Starbucks!”

Oh ye of little faith…

Here’s a coffeemaker that you can set to start brewing at a specific time like an alarm clock. Starbuck’s sells grounds. Set the grounds up the night before and when you wake up your coffee’s ready to go. There, happy? 🙂

4 Dan Schulz

Uhm, I’m only 27, and even I watched “The Jetsons” when I was growing up. 🙂

5 cpradio

I am 24 and I remember “The Jetsons”, lets see if I can name them all: George, Jill, Judy, Alroy, Rosie, and Astro. 🙂 I used to watch that before school constantly…ah the good ole days.

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