Automation is for People, Not Robots

Cody Deitz
Cody Deitz
February 7, 2023
October 25, 2022
min read
Automation is for People, Not Robots

In tech, and in the automation space in particular, we’ve become obsessed with efficiency and productivity. We leverage automation to ferry data between systems, streamline routine processes, and incrementally improve our output. We rightfully ask, “What are we wasting time on?” and “how can we do better?” Then, we employ technology to help us find out.

This obsession isn’t exclusive to the tech space, obviously. In the burgeoning age of remote-first work and online collaboration, productivity and efficiency are the workplace buzzwords of the day.

But in tech, beyond the pursuit of efficiency, we’ve even become obsessed with automation for automation’s sake. Partially, I think this is because building automations makes us feel like we’re doing something—scratching that productivity itch—but also because it’s fun (or, at least I think so). I once wrote a script that closed my browser tabs and put my computer to sleep to save myself a couple clicks. Nevermind that the tangible value of such a script probably doesn’t justify the effort that went into building it (it definitely didn’t). I was still automating, right?

This obsession with automation isn’t a bad thing inherently. Automations that save us a few clicks have a purpose.

But, the more we dive headlong into using automation as an end-all means of improving our productivity, we risk forgetting about the reason automation so excited us as a technology to begin with: its capacity not just to improve productivity, but to improve us and make work more meaningful and enjoyable. The really exciting promise of automation is not to boost our egos or incrementally improve performance metrics, but to help us recapture a more life-changing amount of time and creative space, with which we can focus more meaningfully and completely on work that we, as humans, are uniquely capable of.

Here’s what we lose when we forget that fact.  

Trading tedium for tedium

When we focus on automation primarily as a tool to increase productivity, we make a few mistakes. The worst of these, arguably, is that we think of productivity exclusively as a numbers game—we pay too much attention to volume instead of quality. (The number of automations we’ve deployed, for example, as opposed to the amount of time and space those automations are saving for us.) Of course, quantity is important, but what value is increased quantity if the quality is mediocre?

Perhaps more importantly, we focus on what we’re getting away from instead of what we get to do. It’s awesome that automation can save us small chunks of time that, at scale, can add up to hours each week, but what are we doing with that saved time?

Too often, it seems like we replace one newly-automated process with another, equally tedious one—or worse, we use the time that could have been saved by that newly-automated process further fiddling with the automation itself. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. I love building and tinkering with my Tonkean modules. I’ve always been a tinkerer and can’t help but touch all the buttons and twist all the knobs.

While automation can free us from a lot of tedium, we leave too much on the table by not being intentional about what that freedom allows us to do. There’s a pretty serious opportunity cost associated with that, especially when you consider how that opportunity cost scales across an entire team and organization.

Instead of getting caught up in what we can automate for the sake of automation, chasing a 2% improvement in our productivity or a 3% reduction in error, we must remind ourselves that automation’s real power is to allow humans to do the work only humans can do.

It’s still true that the future of automation is about people, but I think the present of automation is about people, too. The real power of automation is to create a space for us to do the work we find most interesting and most fulfilling.

What my automation has helped me do

I know this from experience. One huge perk of working at Tonkean is I get unfettered access to its host of automation tools. I do spend a lot of time learning and using Tonkean to document it, but I also get to harness its power to automate some of the basic things I do each week.

One of the more tedious and time-consuming parts of my job as a technical writer is receiving and triaging the requests for new and updated documentation. Normally, these are quite informal: I get a Slack message or email about a needed update and I have to determine (1) how urgent the need is, (2) what content is required, and (3) how to approach the work. There are rarely any five-alarm documentation fires, but I feel the urge to be responsive to my colleagues when they reach out to me.

Because I didn’t have a real process in place, it was chaotic and I needed a way to streamline everything. So, a few months ago I built an email inbox solution that automatically receives, triages, and sends me these requests in a curated way. Internal users are prompted to complete a simple form—summoned via Slack command—to send me their requests and info. My colleagues get immediate confirmation that I received their specific request and I get everything organized in the way that works best for me. Everyone wins.

It was fun to build the module logic and get it working, but the real perk was the stuff I suddenly had more time for:

1) Learning and deep work sessions

I was able to spend more time learning some of the more advanced features and use cases Tonkean can handle, like leveraging natural language processing (NLP) and building logic to iterate over a JSON array and parse out important things.

More importantly, I was able to dig into these interesting features with less distraction. I could be more intentional about blocking off “deep work” sessions where I could just read and experiment with the platform to better understand and write about it.

These sessions have helped me generate more detailed, refined content that better distills the product knowledge of our experts. Meanwhile, I knew my docs requests were going to be triaged and queued up for me when I was ready.

2) Understanding and connecting with our growing user base

I was able to think through how to better connect with our users and build strategies to regularly seek their input on our content. Working with another colleague, we built out survey questions that we’ll use to drive our content strategy and help to meet users where they are—helping them solve the challenges they’re actually facing instead of the ones we think they’re facing.

Better yet, we’ll be able to clarify what the user journey looks like. We can clarify the transitions from what’s helpful in the “Get Started” section to what users need when they’re iterating on their complex, established workflows—and all the points in-between.

3) Planning and strategizing for the future

Leading the documentation effort at Tonkean means I wear a lot of hats and one of the most important of these hats is content strategy—not just in the immediate sense but also scaling up over time. While this is a very interesting part of my job, I’ve also found it to be challenging and require a clear headspace—something that can be hard to come by when you’re a shared service for the whole organization.

But with my automated docs-request workflow quietly working for me in the background, my Slack pings grew quieter and less frequent. Once things quieted down, I was able to find the headspace to think creatively and intentionally about our strategy and what it could and should look like in the next six months, the next year, and beyond.

Learning complicated stuff, engaging with people, and planning for the future—these are things that I love about my job and that I get to do more often and more effectively with some of the necessary but boring parts of my job automated away.

And the interesting part to me is that the automation workflow itself is quite simple. It’s really the shift in mindset and being intentional about my saved time that has made all the difference.

Automation is for people

It’s all well and good to build powerful automations that save us time, but if we’re not intentional about how we use that time, what value does it have? We’re missing the point, missing out on the aspects of our work that make it all worthwhile.

My interest in process orchestration and automation has always been its ability to empower people to do what they’re best at. I mean, I’m definitely better at learning and writing about complex processes than I am filling out Jira tickets, so being able to automate away the mundane to create the space to write pays huge dividends for me, my team, and our users.

As we all try to do more with less, remembering that this is the power of automation is arguably more important than it’s ever been.

Let’s remind ourselves of those qualities we’re uniquely capable of: awe-inspiring originality, deep insight, and, well, brilliance. These are the things you are capable of if you can make the time and space.

So, what is your automation giving you the time and freedom to pursue? What meaningful work do you get to do thanks to your faithful robot friends?

After all, automation is for people, not robots.

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