Business Process Automation

If you’re not familiar with the term, it probably sounds like some marketing bullshit, but it’s actually a good shorthand description of one of the ways that software can be insanely useful. To break it down: “Business process” is a blanket term for all the things that people have do at work to get something done. You’ll have a business process for setting up new customer accounts, fulfilling an order for widgets, or whatever. The “Automation” part is about writing software to make this more efficient. So “Business Process Automation” covers any software that makes people’s jobs easier.

That doesn’t mean replacing people with machines. It’s about letting the computer handle the tedious, repetitive crap, and freeing people up to work on the more interesting stuff. In almost any business process, there will be some amount of straightforward bookkeeping that a computer can handle; but there will also be a need for judgement and common sense, and the ability to deal with ambiguous or unforeseen situations, which computers are fundamentally incapable of.

The simplest, most common example of this is spreadsheet software. A computer can’t tell you what numbers and formulas to put in, or what the results mean—what’s important, what action to take—but it can save you the hassle of re-doing the math every time something changes. It’s a power tool, like a band saw or a nail gun.

The first time this was really driven home for me was years ago, when I was working at a little web development shop. I was chatting with a friend of mine who was a designer there, and she was griping that she’d gotten stuck with this crappy assignment. One of our clients had these tables of financial data on their site that had to be updated every month. They sent the new data to us in a PDF document. Her task was to copy the data from the PDF into HTML. So she opened up the PDF in one window, and the HTML source in another, and copied it one entry at a time: click, drag, ctrl-c, click, ctrl-v; for row after row, table after table. She’d just finished the first batch of this, and it had taken her nearly two full days. Absolutely mind-numbing, and she was going to have to do this every month.

She told me all this, and I said, “You did what? No, that’s crazy; don’t do that again. Give me a little while.” I went off and found a utility to dump out the PDF as text, then wrote a Perl script to parse the data out and stuff it into an HTML template. It took me maybe a day and a half. Now, each month, she just had to run the script and spend maybe fifteen minutes proof-reading the pages it spat out.

This is a tiny example, but it demonstrates the alchemy you can work with software. I got to do this fun little side-project; I freed up nearly 10% of her time, so she could do more valuable work for the company; and I made her job way less sucky. Everybody wins.

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