December 11, 2008

Bulk view

Why automation matters to me

The release engineer working on our Drupal project is happy. He manages the deployment of four Drupal projects (each with three multisites), and the project I’m on takes the least time to deploy.

In the beginning, it took two hours to deploy one set of Drupal multisite because of many manual configuration steps. The team had gotten it down to fifteen minutes thanks to node imports and other time-savers, but it still required someone to click on buttons, type in text, and upload files from the source code tree.

Shortly after I joined the team, I started automating as much as I could. This helped me because I could quickly test my configuration from a clean install. I also wrote a web-based deployment script based on the script I’d written for my previous Drupal project. This script made it easy for any team member to deploy a selected revision to the site and reinstall all the microsites. Any time a manual step entered into the installation process, I ruthlessly automated it. Now deployments take a single click (or three, if you want to select a revision other than the latest one), and the build process has shrunk from fifteen minutes to five minutes, with no manual interaction required.

So the release engineer is happy, the team’s happy, I’m happy, and we can quickly deploy and test new code.

I like automating repetitive tasks. It’s not just about showing off a clever shell script or Makefile (although my scripts are clever) or about saving myself time (although I do). It’s about freeing people up to do better work.

One of my best friends was on an internship at a large computer company. A large part of her work involved copying and pasting data between spreadsheets, a task she detested. However, the cost of getting interns to do the work had been lower than the cost of automating the process, so she was assigned to copy and paste the information. If she were more comfortable with programming, she might have automated it herself, but she wasn’t familiar enough with Microsoft Excel to do so. So she did the mind-numbing work. When she left her role, no progress had been made on automating the work, and she knew that the next intern would probably also need to copy and paste information manually.

I remember hearing her frustration with the kind of work she was doing. I wished I could do something about it. I couldn’t, but at least I can automate whatever routine tasks I come across so that people can work more effectively.