John D Cook published a great article on automation recently. He discusses the commonly-held idea that the primary reason to automate things is to save time. As anyone who’s actually gone through this process will tell you, this strategy can often backfire and John points to a comic from the ever-wonderful xkcd that illustrates this perfectly.
John suggests that another reason to automate is to save mental energy rather than time and I completely agree! This is a great reason to automate. When you are under pressure to complete a task that has to be done right first time, being able to simply push the big red button and KNOW that it will work is worth a great deal.
Automation as knowledge storage and transfer
Another use of automation is as a way to store and transfer the knowledge of how to get things done.
I work with a huge array of technologies, spending a large part of my working day poring through manuals, documentation, textbooks and google searches figuring out how to do some task, foo. By the end of the project, I’ll be an expert at doing foo but I know that this expertise won’t last. I’ll soon be moving onto the next project, the next set of technologies and my hard-won knowledge will leak from my brain-cache as quickly as it was filled.
I often find that the fastest way to distill my knowledge of how to do something is to write a script that automates it. It’s often more concise and quicker to write than documentation and is usually useful to me and possibly others. It also serves as a great launching point for relearning the material if ever I revisit this particular set of technologies and tasks.
Automate to improve your processes
Having an automated script also allows others to easily reproduce what I have done. You want what I have? Run this thing and it’s yours. A favour from me to you!
Initially, this looks and feels like an act of pure altruism. I put in a large amount of hard work and someone else benefits. In my experience, however, payback always comes my way when those who use my work give me feedback on how to do it better.