Thoughts on Process: Automation (and examples)

If a process, or part of a process, can be automated it should be. For example, in a project at work, part of our process is to make sure that every dialog present in the English resources of an MFC application is also present in all the other dialogs. We do this manually by loading each language into the app and triggering every dialog. This is tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone. Did I mention we have 12 languages?

A better way would be to have a utility that quickly parses a resource file and extracts the dialog names and compares that list to all the other languages. It could even by expanded to do a control-by-control comparison to make sure all of those were present.

At some point, of course, the dialogs have to be visually inspected for spacing issues in other languages, but for an automated check, it can find the most common errors pretty quickly.

I am a huge fan of automating processes like this. There’s no reason to waste brainpower on highly-repetitive tasks. Even if it takes me a whole day to write a tool, it’s usually worth it.

Examples of automated processes:

  • Build process – if you’re building and packaging your product manually, you’re doing it wrong. All modern environments include command-line, scriptable components. When we build our flagship product, I type “make” and ten minutes later there’s a setup.exe in a distribution folder for our team.
  • Unit testing – Unit testing suites are usually automated to some degree (you hit a button, all tests run), but it can be taken further by running them during builds or as part of a continuous integration server.
  • Documentation/Change-logs – whenever we produce a new build, we send out an e-mail to internal staff about the changes. These are usually culled from the check-in comments in subversion. It’s a manual process. It might be nice to automatically dump them to a file, which can then be edited instead of written from scratch.
  • Code checks – this can encompass almost anything, but having static analysis tools is invaluable. Like the utility that I mentioned earlier to compare resource files across all the languages we support, it can save tons of manual, “stupid” labor.
  • Loading source onto a new machine – How long does it take to get up and running on a new machine? Admittedly, you shouldn’t be switching machines all THAT often, but when you do how easy is it to grab the source and start debugging? Are all the required libraries and tools in source control and automatically configured by build scripts?
  • E-mail – If you’re like me, you get scores if not hundreds of e-mails a day. How are you organizing, sorting, responding, ignoring, deleting them? Setup filters to put them into different folders, highlight or tag them when certain keywords appear. Also, get Google Desktop Search or Windows Desktop Search. I like both of them, but I’m currently using Google’s version. I may switch back in a while.
  • Bug reporting – While not strictly about automation, I think it’s close enough. Reporting bugs and code changes in a text file is good for a while–if you’re the only one working, and you have a small number of them to deal with. Once you start involving more programmers, and perhaps a manager who wants to see some basic reports, the text file doesn’t cut it. Get a simple bug reporting tool. I use BugTracker.Net because it’s easy, simple and does exactly what we need with minimum fuss. How do I know what to work on? I open up a web page and it tells me. I’ve automated not only some manual labor, but also some needless thought processes.
  • Calendaring – Do you need to write a weekly report for your manager? Keep track of employee’s vacation schedules? Use Outlook’s (or whatever PIM you choose) task list and calendar for anything you need to remember about a specific date. Set reminders for when you need to think about them, and then forget about them.
  • Data production – if you’re in a production environment generating data that needs to be analyzed, create tools to do as much of it as possible. Of course, the tools need to be checked for correctness, but once you’re confident, do it and don’t look back.

There are many, many ways you can optimize, reduce, and automated the work you’re doing. Remember, the whole point is to get rid of the “dumb” work and let yourself concentrate on the important, creative things.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Process: Automation (and examples)

  1. Corey Trager

    I’m the author of BugTracker.NET.

    Because you mentioned that you are using both Subversion and BugTracker.NET, just FYI that versions 2.5.9 and coming this weekend, 2.6.0 include big improvements in the Subversion integration feature.

    Integration means that when looking at a bug, you can drill down and see what lines of code you changed to fix that bug.

  2. pepethecow Post author

    Corey–that is awesome! I will definitely be updating then. I usually check for updates every couple of months or so. So far, I’ve really enjoyed using BugTracker.Net — it’s exactly what we need and works very well.

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