I love automation.
Seriously, what could be more satisfying than tricking a machine into doing all the things you don’t want to do using only the power of your mind? Paying bills, brewing coffee, making appointments, ordering food… it’s like being Tom Sawyer without all the manipulation and questionable ethical choices.
OK, Google, Do My Math Homework
If I’m being completely honest, I owe my career to automation. While I have always been interested in technology, it wasn’t until I got my hands on my first programmable graphing calculator back in high school (the trusty TI-83 Plus) that I really understood just how powerful the concept of using computers to solve all your problems was.
One of the very first programs I ever wrote (which, now that I think about it, was probably the first program I ever wrote outside the Wild West that was Geocities website development) was a little graphing calculator utility that solved quadratic equations for me… and, eventually, the rest of the class.
It has been twenty years since that story, and while my teacher classified my ingenuity as cheating and nearly flunked me out of Algebra II, I ultimately learned a valuable lesson: with enough understanding of a problem space, well-designed automation can save an extreme amount of time, stress, and (eventually) money.
A Cure for Burnout
For over a decade now, I have worked in about every type of company you can imagine – from three-person startups to publicly traded companies with staff in the thousands – and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is never enough time, people, or money to get everything done. The reality is that just because we’re stretched thin doesn’t mean we can’t continue to execute. Add in the “unprecedented” events of the last two and a half years, and it’s no surprise that people are finding themselves pushed past their breaking points.
If “doomscrolling” was the word of 2020, “burnout” should be the word of 2022.
But the wheel never stops turning. So, how do we keep the business moving forward while still creating a healthy and supportive atmosphere for the people that make it all happen? I’ll give you a hint: automation.
In the business world, “automation” tends to have a lot of meanings, but for our purposes, I am using the word to mean the automatic execution of previously manual processes. In case you missed it, the key phrase in that definition is “previously manual processes.”
What do I mean by “previously manual?”
In a nutshell, I mean a process or action that an employee is either already doing by hand or would be doing by hand if they only had the time. This is an important distinction because it’s easy to buy into a new tool that proposes to “automagically” solve all of your problems without first identifying where in your current process it will reduce time or stress.
Take, for example, quality assurance. Many organizations hire people to manually test changes to an application or service before it gets deployed, and while testing is critical to the software development lifecycle, many of these tests are repetitive and ultimately prone to human error. By employing automated “record and playback” style testing tools, tests become not only repeatable but also cumulative. Whereas before, a single tester might take days to test a new feature plus run standard regression tests, automation can enable them to run those same tests in a matter of hours.
In a similar vein, automation can go a long way toward reducing long deploy times, which in turn can reduce the stress of a deployment. Many organizations rely on long checklists filled with backups, rollovers, tagging, and dozens of other steps necessary for releasing a new version of an application into a production environment. These checklists, while valuable, make deployments slow – and recovery from those deployments even slower. Automating releases not only speeds the process up, it also helps prevent errors and ultimately reduces the recovery time in the event of an incident – all of which reduce employee stress.
It’s not just about engineers, though. Automation can help support an overworked workforce in any capacity. For example, it can be used to automatically onboard new employees or increase the company’s security posture. Even simple things like managing conference rooms or on-call rotations can reduce the amount of repetitive administrative work employees are often expected to do.
A Checklist Is an Automation in Training
One thing to note is that in almost every situation, an automation is preceded by a checklist of some sort that outlines the steps necessary to successfully execute a manual procedure. The beauty of a checklist is that it is an already-documented repeatable process, which means that automating it is more a matter of time than complexity. Anywhere a checklist or documented process exists in an organization is an opportunity to reduce stress and increase predictability.
There will always be more work to do than time and people to get that work done. But just because we’re busy doesn’t mean we have to burn out. Automation can help provide that much-needed work-life balance by taking care of the “boring” stuff, leaving us to focus on the things that make our jobs worth doing. All it takes is a little understanding and effort. And, in case you were wondering, I did eventually pass Algebra II. All I had to do was update my little calculator program to also output the steps to the solution alongside the answer.
Always show your work.