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The IT Professional’s Guide to Automation

By - Source: Toms IT Pro
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Change up your routine by automating your repetitive tasks.

Credit: ShutterstockCredit: ShutterstockAutomation. It's a term that has a different connotation for different people. Some believe automation is, and will continue to be, the cause of job loss. Some believe that automation will increase efficiency throughout the industry and will force workers to become more educated and get better jobs. Regardless of what you think about automation, it's on the rise and, as IT professionals, we need to recognize this and figure out ways we can apply automation to our daily lives.

One of the hardest parts about getting started with automation is just discovering where it can fit in. You've probably been doing the same routine day in and day out without much thought. We come in, grab a cup or pot of coffee, sit down at our desks, sift through emails, close helpdesk tickets, continue on that important project and so on. We rarely actually think about the bigger picture. We don't recognize the patterns in our day-to-day and instead just merrily go along putting out fires. The ticket is closed, the project is completed, and as soon as it's out of site, it's out of mind. This kind of mentality is the enemy of automation.

MORE: Zen and the Art of Workflow Automation

To get the most out of automation, we first have to first recognize these daily, weekly and monthly patterns we're going through. Automation is leveraged best for repetitive tasks done exactly the same way every time. It's up to you to make a list of these tasks. The first step is taking time, turning off the phone, closing Outlook and pushing back from fire-fighting mode to think through your normal work patterns. Some common areas that are ripe for automation are:

  • New employee user provisioning
  • Deploying standardized servers
  • Software deployments
  • Software patching

Break down your job into categories and think about how often you perform a particular task. The more repetitive a task, the longer it takes and how similar the actions are to complete the tasks the better. These kinds of tasks will save you potentially hundreds of hours of time over the course of a year.

Next, break down the workflow for each task. While thinking about this task breakdown, think about each task as having a trigger, an action and a schedule. Something will always trigger a task; a new employee being hired, a new application coming online or when Microsoft releases new patches every month. Each task has a trigger that then invokes the action. The action is what it takes to complete the task.

When a new employee is hired, we create the Active Directory user, we create the Exchange mailbox, we put them in the HR database, etc. Each action is broken down into individual steps.

Finally, we have a schedule. A schedule can either be a predictable, recurring schedule like patches are released on the second Tuesday of every month or unpredictable like a hiring freeze at your organization. Regardless, each task will have a schedule.

Automation is all about figuring out what that root trigger is; not just "I need to create an AD user" but "HR adds a row to a database," breaking down each task into individual actions and chaining them together. Once you have this system in place, it's then a matter of standardizing this system to apply across multiple instances. It's about recording how things are done manually today and then standardizing those actions into some kind of repeatable sequence.

Ultimately, just get started. Don't get overwhelmed at first. Pick out the task that you find yourself performing the most frequently and takes the longest and use that. You'll never truly "get" what automation is all about until you've built something that frees up hours of your day to do other things you enjoy.

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