the sweet spot: Local Automation

When you learn to code, you acquire a superpower: automation. We turn the computer into a machine to do our (very specific) bidding. We get paid to automate what other people want. We can and should use this superpower for ourselves too!

Levels of automation

Are we programmers or software developers?

Probably both.

I think of a program as a piece of code that runs on my box and does something useful for me. It can be a one-line shell script or a Scala program backed by a graph database that downloads all my dependencies.

Software is also made of code. Lots of code, code on servers and code in browsers and code on mobile devices. Software runs on all the computers and is useful to millions of people. It has compatibility, integration, redundancy, persistence, security, tests, user experience, multi-region back ends and multi-platform front ends. It has program managers and technical writers and designers and operations. It has stakeholders.

Scaling and safety and compatibility make software super expensive: thousands or millions of times more expensive than a program. And then there’s the risk: will the Software be useful? (If it’s internal software people are required to use, it might even make their jobs harder. Net negative benefit.) What changes will make it more useful?

Optimization

Software and programs are degrees of automation. We build this automation in order to make a system work more smoothly. Optimizing that system is easy when the beneficiary of a change is the same person who can make it — in a program, I am my stakeholder, I define “useful.” In Software, Optimizing is super hard because the people benefiting from the software and the people who can change it are distant in the communication graph. The feedback loop is long and circuitous.

On one hand, we can work on bringing developers closer to people who can measure benefits. On the other hand, can we find a place where this is already the case?

In development teams! Developers automating for their own team is low effort, high payoff. Personally, I can make programs that only benefit me, which is limited. Go one level up: how much more work is it to write code that benefits my team? If we automate what we already do, then: it only has to run on a few known computers, no one is forced to use it, everyone who uses it can change it so tests are optional. This gives me some scale of value, with little scale in cost. If it turns out really useful, other teams in the org can copy it.


I wish I had automation to set up a build on Travis. A minimum value is certain: I want it right now. The cost is uncertain, but discoverable. I can risk spending one 20-minute iteration on it. At the end of that iteration, I’ll have more information about the cost. I can give it another 20 minutes, or set the idea aside until I hit the same problem again, which gives me information about the value. My pair and I (or the mob in mob programming) become a microcosm of a product team, for whatever timebox we set.

It helps, so do it more.

At some point we automated tests, installed version control, set up continuous integration. These are automations we no longer do without, although at one point we didn’t know how useful they’d be. What will be the next automation we won’t work without?

Here are some examples of local or personal automation that I heard about or used today.

As developers we have this superpower of automation. I think we should use it more on ourselves. We will learn more about our own work by studying how to improve it. And we will improve it, and continually grow our ability to create reliable, persistent, user-experienceable, compatible Software.

Write shell scripts! and Slack bots! and Jenkins plugins! At Atomist I have a platform to more easily scale up my automations from local to team; we’re building it. Don’t wait for us, though. Local automation is a sweet spot no matter what tool you use. Accelerate yourself.