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Dealing with Automation

Dealing with Automation

Sometimes, people just want to do things manually.

There is a weekly report that I created almost 2 years ago that pulled in data via macro. It basically does the job for you in 5 minutes and all you have to do is review the numbers. Now. sometimes you have to fix some errors but those errors are generally due to incomplete entries into the system or retroactive entries that were made during the prior week. Last week, one of the supervisors came to me and told me that her girls were spending a lot of time on the report. It turns out the girls do 3 reports: one an in-depth report keyed in manually, my report that is automated and a third that is manual version of the automated report to "fix" some "errors". The "errors" were mainly items that I knew would pose problems beforehand (due to how people want to report those numbers), so I had set up those items as being "fixable". Most of the spreadsheet is protected but there are some areas that was left unprotected. Those items are one of those parts of the spreadsheet that I left unprotected (and color coded as yellow to denote as being able to be altered.)

Unfortunately, I was in listening mode so I forgot about how those numbers could be altered instead of creating yet a third report. I'm going to have to tell her that her girls can alter those numbers without having to do a manual report.

But the thing I really want to talk about is the other complaint the supervisor spoke about: her girls don't know their numbers unless the numbers are manually keyed in. And I understand that feeling.

I encountered this same phenomena in my last place of employment. I had a group of people who had to key in a lot of information into a system called IFS. One day I figured out a way to upload the data and I offered to show them how to do an upload. But no, they preferred to key in the numbers because doing so allowed them to get familiar with the numbers. I called it running the numbers through your fingertips. And I faced that same feeling when I first started at SAIC: I was used to dealing with all of the details (micromanaging the numbers) before I arrived at SAIC. But at SAIC, I quickly realized that I would never get anything done if I had to enter everything manually myself. With approximately 100 projects, it just was not possible. So I had to learn how to set up reports to tell me what was going on.

And that is a skill a lot of people need to learn in order to get away from manual entries. Companies will go automated whether you like it or not, so you have to learn how to manage without the manual process. As you go further up the company (especially large ones), you have to learn how to rely on your people (if you manage any), learn how to read and assess reports and learn how to question things because there is just too much data for you to be inputting into systems. Apparently, at SAIC, I just naturally gravitated toward using an alternate method of "knowing the numbers" (and getting away from perfection). Maybe it was because I have spent my entire working career creating Excel spreadsheets to handle most of the manual work, so I'm comfortable with that.

An analogy that I sometimes use is your bank statement. Those bank statements are being created automatically; I'm sure no one is manually creating them for you. You are certainly not creating them; instead you review them to make sure nothing weird sticks out and you compare them to your checkbook. This is the kind of approach that accountants and managers, such as the girls doing the report, have to take. Automation will generally do things faster and more accurately (not always, but it is more likely to be correct than a human).

But this is a really hard thing to learn.

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