What is workflow automation, and why it rocks!
By Hanaan Rosenthal
Hanaan Rosenthal is the Founder/President/Lead Developer at Providence's Custom Flow Solutions (CFS). He is also author of "AppleScript", the third edition of which will be available soon. Hanaan will be presenting at the February Geek Dinner on Wednesday the 17th in Downtown Providence. Details and RSVP.
For most of us, most of the automation we encounter happens at home. Dishwasher, transmission, washing machine, and so on. At work, well, not so much. At our job, the process we go through during the day is complex enough that charting it can be a headache, let alone teaching a computer or some machine how to do it. We all have that image from the sixties of the robot that walks around autonomously performing simple tasks such as bringing you coffee. Fifty years later, and Sony is still working on this one with no release date in mind. Fact is that automating what we do, home or work, is a tall order. In fact, some tasks got nicely automated by specific machines that do specific things. For example, man has managed to automate the process of washing things like dishes and clothes, making copies, hauling our butts from place to place, and other things we now take for granted. Automation of longer, more complex processes is done as well but requires massive infrastructure, planning and expense.
One thing that happened in the past 25 years, especially in the print and media industry, is that up to the physical printing step, 100% of the process happens using software, right on a computer. You can design, edit, write copy, proof and correct, all without leaving your Mac.
What this means is that for the print industry, automation no longer means having to invest in hydraulic pumps and robotic arms. Instead, we can have software that controls software.
For me this was a natural path. Since I was a kid, I always looked for an easier way to get more done. Not so much out of laziness, but more out of fascination. I got my background in print and graphics from my grandfather, who is the most admired graphic designer in Israel, where I was born and raised. He is responsible for many postage stamps, the art on money notes, and he hand wrote the "Book of Peace" that was handed to Begin, Sadat and Carter after they signed the historic peace agreement in 1977. Mostly, however, he's known for being a typeface designer. Zvi designed six of the nine most used typefaces in the hebrew language.
As for me, I left highschool early, and some years later moved to Providence with Johanne, my wife of over 20 years. It didn't take long before I found myself glued to a Mac at the RISD lab, taking an Illustrator class with Tom Murphy. About five years later, I discovered AppleScript.
AppleScript is the most poked-at programming language ever created. Its attempt to sound like english is almost comical. For example, this is a perfectly legal instruction: tell application "Adobe InDesign" to tell every document whose name is not "SomeDoc" to close without saving. But don't let that fool you. Behind that laughable syntax lies power of a different kind. It is different mostly in scope. See, a single AppleScript script can control almost any aspect of the Mac. In fact, it has as much control as a human sitting next to the computer has. The implications in my mind were mind-boggling. Now, I can figure out how people did their work, understand what portions of that work really had to be done by humans, separate the portions that are purely logic-based, and teach the computer how to do those parts on it's own! I discovered workflow Automation. Well, I know, now I'll be mocked forever for saying that, but if Al Gore can take it, so can I.
From then on it was all AppeScript for me. I stuck my nose everywhere telling anyone who listened that I could teach their Mac how to do most of their work for them. And I did. My first big gig was at Fidelity Investment where I created a system that automatically compiled quark pages into presentations. The crew of 8 people that did that manually before has shrunk to 6 in a matter of six months, and the average time it took to produce a presentation dropped dramatically. Later on, I was shown a chart needed by one of the slides, and that Excel had no answers for. It was sort of a floating chart that had color rectangles that floated above and below the zero point. I wrote some code that produced that graph, and HyperGraph was born. From that point, I got my graph automation used in the Boston Globe for their stock charts, they were bought by The New York Times, who had me create a system for them about four years ago. That system produced the two stocks pages and the weather pages. Shortly after I did the same for the Associated Press, and now have a product with Reuters. The Reuters product is cool because it sits on a server in Boston somewhere and does it's thing with no human intervention. Imagine: Every day, four times, it taps Reuters systems to extract a massive amount of data, it then processes the data and produces those incredible charts and tables. Those are placed in layouts and FTP'd to clients. All that happenes without any human intervention. The server calls us when it feels lonely once every two months, but other than that it just works.
What I found most amazing about automation is that rather than constrain you, it frees you to design anything you can possibly come up with, becuse once you teach the computer how to do it for you, it will create the page in a matter of seconds whether it is boring or incredibley complex. For example, one of the charts we create shows the last week of the S&P 500. Instead of showing one line depicting the average, it draws a thin, smooth line for every one of the 500 companies! This sort of crazyness can only happen with automation.
Another crazy graph idea was to take a pool of over 9000 mutual funds and show their return over various periods of time. Each category of funds will have a color, and lets see what comes out. (See above)
Hope to see you at the February Geek Dinner on Wed the 17th - Details and RSVP.