There’s No Excuse
If you have a long, error-prone process, automate it. This is the essential underpinning of what we all do for a living and informs our day to day routines. Whether we’re making innovative new consumer applications, games, line of business applications, or anything else, we look at other people’s lives and say, “we can make that automatic.” “Don’t use a pen and paper for your todo list when there’s GTasks.” “Don’t play risk with a board and dice when you can do it online (or play an Elder Scrolls game instead).” “Don’t key all that nonsense in by hand.”
And yet, far too often we fail to automate our own lives and work. I wonder if there’s some kind of cognitive blindspot we have. When other people mindlessly perform laborious tasks, we jump in and point out how dumb what they’re doing is and how we can sell them something that will rock their world. But when we mindlessly perform laborious tasks (data entry, copy and paste programming, etc) we don’t think twice or, if we do, we assure ourselves that it’s too complicated or not worth automating or something.
I was going through some old documentation the other day to look up what was needed to add another instance of a feature to a legacy application. What it boiled to was something along the lines of “we have an application that sells computers and we want to add a new kind of PCI card to the configurable options.” Remarkably, this involved hand-adding things to all sorts of different meta data tables in a database, along with updating some stored procedures. The application, generally speaking, was smart enough to do the rest without code changes, even including GUI updates, so that was a win. But hand-adding things to tables was… annoying.
If only there were something that would let people add things to the database without using the query explorer tool and doing it by hand… something where you could write instructions in some kind of “language,” if you will, and translate these instructions into something visual and easy to understand so that people could add meta-data more simply. Hmmm.
Wait, I’ve got it! How about instead of a document explaining how to add a bunch of records to the database, you write an administrative function into your GUI that automates it? What a victory! You get the meta-data added and your new PCI option, and you also remove the possibility that you’ll mangle or forget one of the entries and leave the system in a poor state. This is really the only option. It’s not an either-or kind of situation. Hand-adding things to your database is facepalm.
What’s the moral of this story? To me, it’s this: if you have a giant document detailing manual steps for programmers to follow to get something done, what you really have is a spec/user story for your next development cycle. Automate all the things, and then burn those documents at a cathartic, gleeful camp fire. You can turn your onerous processes into roasted marshmallows.