Automation, Anywhere You Want It

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I took the above picture the morning of day 2 at #TFD19 on a whim, and then in my normal, “Jimbo” fashion, proceeded to tweet about how apparently that while you can do “automation anywhere,” today we were going to do it at a company named Automation Anywhere.  While I made my comment tongue in cheek, the folks from Automation Anywhere spent the next 3 hours demonstrating to me that they aren’t joking; they want to automate everything, everywhere, and they want to do it now!  What is their plan to accomplish such an audacious task?

Robotic Process Automation.

Robotic Process Automation, also known as RPA, is the fastest growing enterprise software solution on the market right now.  To be honest, before Automation Anywhere announced they were going to present at #TFD19 I hadn’t heard of the company or RPA’s. When initially explained to us, my first thought was “this is what my organization wants to do, they just didn’t know it had a name.”  I’m pretty sure that if you think about it, this is the panacea that has been dreamed about since the Industrial Revolution of the 1920’s, just in modern form.

What is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic Process Automation is the ability to create your own “software robots” to automate your business processes.  These “bots” as they are known, are programmed by you, sometimes on the fly, to automate a process within your organization that up to this point, has been done by humans, but could be done by configurable software instead.  Get multiple bots doing multiple things, and you now have RPA’s!

In the past it was a human to move your widget from point A to point B that has now been replaced by a robot.  Then it was the macros that I wrote in Excel to copy out the columns from a report and paste them into a new spreadsheet.  (Yes, I am technical enough to have done that!)  Now, when I message a company online, some macro robot thingy responds to me first.  I didn’t know it had a name, until now!

Just like with Industrial Revolution from the 1920’s, the Technological Revolution that we are living in today always come with fears.  Robots, be they physical machines or bits of code (pun intended) are going to take our jobs!  Those fears aren’t unfounded, it has happened.  Robots have replaced human jobs in places where the environment is harmful to humans, keeping us safe.  Robots have replaced humans in areas where redundant motions could cause harm to humans.  Again, keeping us safe.

While sad that those people lost their jobs, most found that this was a blessing in disguise.  The impetus to look for something better often times leads to better things, things you wouldn’t have looked for had something “bad” not happened.

What Does This Really Mean?

So what is Automation Anywhere doing with this?  Their vision, as presented by Mihir Shukla, is to get a “digital assistant” for every worker.  Something to take care of the tasks that as humans, we don’t like doing.  Repetitive tasks that over time lead to mistakes by these human workers who get bored, distracted, sick, you name it.

As an enterprise, you can quickly see where this is headed, and why you should care.  These digital assistants, according to Automation Anywhere, take the form of RPA (bots) combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) as part of a larger “Digital Workforce” vision. To quote Mihir, “people were not put on this planet … to do robotic jobs.”  Think about that for a second, it’s a powerful thought.

After hitting most of the marketing buzzwords, I could spend the next 30 minutes explaining more about RPA, but instead check out this website and this one if you need more convincing.  What I want to talk about is the “what’s next?” question while I still have you attention.

Sadly, I don’t know all the nuts and bolts of how it works, yet.  My guess is if you knew, you probably wouldn’t be reading this.  What I can give you is a link to what is probably one of the cooler things that I learned at Tech Field Day, and that is Automation Anywhere University.  Do you want to learn more but aren’t sure where to start?  Do you learn by doing, and putting things into practice?  If so, this is the place for you.  Honestly, I’m new to this, and know less than most about traditional network and application development, but we all need to start somewhere!

Learning About RPA’s

From everything I heard, Automation Anywhere appears to be taking the lead in the education of the masses when it comes to RPA’s.  They are the first company to present at Tech Field Day about RPA in the history of TFD (coming up on 10 years!) and they founded their university so we could learn about RPA’s.  If that isn’t taking a lead in this field, then I don’t know who is because I have never heard of this before now!

As well as the aforementioned Automation Anywhere University, their numerous websites are a treasure trove of information about RPA’s, how to get started, and already developed bot’s.  To get you started, here are some links that jumped out at me initially:

  • RPA Community Edition – A free service for small businesses, developers, and students.
  • A-People – This is an online community for any questions you might have about RPA.
  • Bot Store – An online “marketplace” where you can find bot’s that have been built by others, and possibly even sell a bot you created!  From what I saw, there are plenty that are free for use.
  • Automation Anywhere University – This is such an important link, in my opinion, that I wanted to include it twice!

As much as I would love to do an in-depth review of RPA’s and the Digital Workforce, that is a story for another day.  Hopefully that day is after I have attended some courses through the university and gotten my hands dirty.  Until then, my goal here is to get the word about RPA’s spread around.  I was late (OK, very late) in joining the API bandwagon but here is my chance to redeem myself.  If API’s are the calling card that I hear all the time today, the RPA is the next generation of that calling card.

Too Good To Be True?

To be honest and fair, I do believe that Automation Anywhere still needs to do some work.  There are questions that came up during their 3 hours of presentation time (you should take the time to watch them, they are found here) that raises some concerns.  Bots that could be, or have been designed, to have unlimited access to confidential and financial records.  Is that a good idea? Who’s to say, but with fallible humans programming them on the fly, it could happen.  I honestly believe that Information Security teams, in a day and age where that is at the forefront, will have a big say in RPA’s being deployed in an enterprise.

Is there a good way to test the impact of a newly deployed bot on your system before you deploy it?  That really is dependent on if you have a mature and developed test environment (that is actually separate from your production environment!) If you “test in production” this could introduce some concern (read: panic!) from Network Engineers and DevOps folks that will certainly have some comments, valid or not.

Just as cars and jet airplane travel became the norm after the industrial revolution, I could see a place where RPA and the Digital Workforce could reach that same level.  Will there be some carnage before we reach that plateau that Mihir spoke of in his introduction?  Probably.  Will it rise to the level that it makes the mainstream media and creates a panic?  Maybe.  Is it a reason to avoid it and hope it goes away?  No way!

What’s Next?

Just like with car and then jet airplane travel, this will be transformational in how things are done in the technology world.  It is dependent on us, the technology professional, to take these new inventions out and push them to the limit and report back where it needs help.  Cars and planes only got better after daring people took them out for a test, why do we expect technology to be different?

What about this Digital Workforce?  While I can see where the intent is, I still need to wrap my head around RPA before taking the next step!

One of the overriding themes of Tech Field Day 19 was people.  Sometimes in a good light and sometimes in a not so good light.  After what I saw, RPA’s are coming, and you can stick your head in the sand as much, and as deep, as you want, but the Technological Revolution is not going to care and it will steamroll right past you.  I think the question that we need to ask ourselves is are we going to be the ones with our heads in the sand, hiding from the inevitable, or are we going to be the visionaries who choose to push the boundaries?

Originally posted 3 July 2019
Disclaimer – Gestalt IT paid for my expenses to attend Tech Field Day 19 and Automation Anywhere provided lunch as well as a water bottle and pop socket.  My thoughts and feelings expressed here are mine alone and not necessarily shared by Gestalt IT or Automation Anywhere.

 

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