Automation tricks of the trade

We make extensive use of automation to manage the day-to-day running of DataSalon, using our ‘robot staff’ to handle most recurring or repetitive tasks. Below we share some of the trade secrets which allow us to sit back and let the machines do most of the work:

1. Scheduled tasks. The scheduled task (or “cron job”) is the basic workhorse of automation, and allows you to run a specified process on a pre-defined schedule. This might be once per day or week (in the case of a database re-build for example) or even every 5 minutes, perhaps to monitor that a given web site remains up and running. As a common example, many people run a daily or weekly task for virus checking of their own PC. This type of scheduling is accessible to almost anyone, and Windows users have built-in access to automation via the ‘Scheduled Tasks’ feature within ‘Control Panel’.

2. Event-driven tasks. Often more powerful than scheduled tasks, here a given process is run in response to an external event, rather than on a pre-defined schedule. For example, the delivery of a new file to an FTP site might trigger a checking and conversion process as soon as the new file arrives. Event-driven tasks are characterised by constant “watching” for new events to ensure a prompt response. In fact, all web sites are good examples of event-driven automation, in that they wait for page requests to arrive and immediately respond with the relevant page content. An event-driven approach makes automation dynamic and responsive.

3. Web spidering. Most people are familiar with the concept of search engines ‘crawling’ the internet to discover new pages, but it is also quite possible to use similar techniques for your own business tasks. For example, our web robot collects new files from various client web sites, and neatly handles all of the logins, form-filling, and button-pushing in just the same way a human user would. As well as removing the need for extra staff, this also means we can collect data during unsociable hours when the relevant web sites are not otherwise heavily used.

4. Communicating with real people. Automation is all very well, but it’s also essential to allow your robots to communicate with you in order to keep an eye on what they’ve been up to. For this, both email and SMS messaging are well-suited to automation, being quick and cheap (and not requiring the power of speech!) We tend to use both approaches, with robots sending us emails about most day-to-day tasks, but using SMS messages for any urgent problems. Related to this, it’s also possible to automate receiving emails as well as sending them, and we often use this technique to start tasks ‘on demand’ by a (human) member of staff emailing instructions to the relevant (robot) email account. And yes, they do then email back a reply, and at that point it probably starts to sound slightly creepy…