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The importance of day-to-day Automation

By on · (892 words)5 min read
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I still remember my first day at Google over 3 years ago. I had just joined the Ads Implementation team where we helped some of our large advertisers to launch campaigns efficiently and at scale.

As I was shadowing one of my colleagues, I spent over 10 minutes painfully watching them manually copying and cleaning data around several web applications. What was worse is that the exact same process of copying rows of data was repeated over 20 times as I was watching. I asked my colleague how often was this process done, to which they replied around 30 to 40 times per week and person.

On a team of (back then) 10 people, you could easily estimate that this manual repetitive process was wasting 50 hours (10 minutes x 30 times x 10 people) a week to the company. In other words, they would not have needed to hire me if this process had been automated or better designed.

More importantly, it was not a significantly complex or dynamic process. The task was also not directly adding value to our customers. It was simply copying data from one web interface to another web interface with certain formatting options.

Having coded web scripts for all my favourite websites (mainly for online games, I may confess) since I was 12, I decided to tackle this issue. It took me a bit more of 2 hours to create a small Javascript file that would add a <copy> button to the interface that would export the whole view in the format the team needed and share it with them. And, just like that, we brought back 5 hours to each team member every week and saved one full time employee to the company. Not to mention how much pain we saved on having employees performing these low-value activities.

This was an eureka moment for me. How many other manual processes we were doing every day that could be automated this easily? How much time do we waste in our daily work just because we do not stop and think if there is a better way?

Back then, this inspired me to deepen the work in Automation within my organisation which would save Google over 200,000 hours of manual work on implementation and troubleshooting.

Today, I want to start writing a series of posts about how each of us can apply these very same principles to our own work and have significant impact on our own productive time and the value for our companies.

Day-to-day Automation principles

Critically think every task you take

This success story was not achieved because a ground-breaking technology or a complete shift in paradigms. It was achieved simply because we stopped, thought and identified a task that was wasting our time. This is a process in which everyone can engage.

Have you ever felt like doing monkey work? Step aside, think if there is a better way to do it. If you do not have the time to tackle it at that moment, write it down and review it later.

Indeed, set time aside periodically to understand where you are spending your time and what tasks feel a waste of resources. Time tracking apps may help you here, but it is more important that you think and review your workflows; specially as you execute them.

The best way to find the next big opportunity is simply to think about what we are about to do critically.

Small repeated tasks add up in the long run

Big automation initiatives within companies tend to focus on critical business issues, not on small employee tasks. And that should be the case. The reason for which no one had automated this process before is because it only took 10 minutes every time someone did it.

However, a task that is executed 5–6 times a day ends up being done +1,500 times a year by a single person or 15,000 times by a small team of 10. The numbers grow significantly as we expand our timeframe.

We can find significant opportunities to save time with small effort if we see the repeated patterns and behaviours.

Look for the quick wins

There are times in which we want to focus in building robust infrastructures, like when we deliver products to our customers. Nevertheless, there are other times when we can find quick wins, hacks and solutions to problems.

In order to fix our data export and cleaning issue, we could have asked Product team to include the features we required. However, for them, our use case might not have been considered a priority and that would have taken time to get it into the web interface.

Instead, we tackled the issue by deploying a small script that run on the browser of our team members and performed a very customised and specialised task for exactly our need. This was a time to be scrappy and find a quick solution for a big problem.

A lot of times, fixing the issue does not require to create fundamentally complex technologies, but to apply technology smartly.

All in all, applying automation to your own work within your personal and professional life will have big impactful time savings and bring happiness to you and those around you.

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