Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Automation software

I'm angry enough that if I had a spade, I'd probably try and commit a violent act of gardening on the next person I met. It's lucky nobody has issued a sunny 'hello' to me while I've been near a frying pan, or there would have been a death by cooking utensil on the news tonight. And it's very fortunate that I don't work in a rifle factory, or I'd be up on a roof right now. What is the source of all this misplaced rage? The title of this post should be clue enough: automation software, in some of its many guises.

It should have been easy. I have a spreadsheet with five thousand lines of not-particularly-exciting data that I want to put into one of our company's data entry tools, and demonstrating the maxim that a good mathematician is a lazy mathematician1, I don't want to spend more time copying and pasting than I absolutely have to.

Nor do I want anyone else to have to. Is this some existential zeal to not have others act in bad faith? Is it because I believe that a life pressing Ctrl-C, Alt-tab, Ctrl-V is a life slightly less worth living than one that's just unexamined? Who knows? At this point, I'm not sure I care; if only my data would flit happily from spreadsheet to database.

There's a tool called Workplace Macro that came recommended. Well, I say recommended. Somebody said they used it to automate data entry, and I could *#@?$y well learn to use it myself rather than ask them damnfool questions.

I tried. It turned out to consist of recording what the mouse did, which is fine if (a) none of the windows on your screen ever move and (b) you want to do exactly the same thing several hundred times.

Sadly, the data I have to enter has various rules governing it, and the data entry tool has certain interesting behaviour, like only ever showing you the answer to question A if you asked question A directly after question 2, and not after any other chain of events, and if you think I'm riding slipshod over naming conventions and it should have been questions 1 and 2 (or 2 and 1) then I'd invite you to come and read the documentation on this system. Lord Lucan has almost finished writing it, with help from Shergar and Jack the Ripper, and the fairies at the bottom of the garden who read the first draft say it's really helpful.

Plus, Workplace Macro records everything. Everything, as in the ten second pause where you had to blow your nose, and the bit where you clicked on the wrong window by mistake, or just moved the mouse in a way that seemed innocuous at the time, but replayed fivethousandfold tends to send you over the edge. And it plays it back the same every time, which, when your data entry application takes a random length of time to perform tasks like saving data, means half the time the macro is out of sync with the application and is happily cutting and pasting galumphing mounds of gibberish all over your pretty account data.

And then I'd probably get fired.

You could edit the macros it produces, but only in a hideous editting program, and the code is so horrible to interpret that it would take about as long as typing the damn stuff in by hand. Possibly this was why somebody pointed me at it, in a malign act of corporate misdirection.

So I packed that in, and downloaded a tool called Macro Scheduler, from MJTnet, which is absolutely lovely; you can record your interactions with web pages and how you fill in forms, but its very economical and easy to read, because it only records the significant things (like somebody typed "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" into every field of the Overlook Hotel feedback form). So you can debug it and modify it easily, and it has subroutines and loops and conditional logic built in, so I could get it to interact with my spreadsheet in ways much more akin to a human being. A human being with enough sense to figure out what to do, but not enough to go and look for a more fulfilling occupation.

But. But. But in some horrible twist of fate, it turns out there's some secret thing going on with my data entry application, and one field on the form can't be filled in by the MJTNet scheduler. I don't know why, I don't know how, this particular field is like five others that work fine, but when I try to adjust the value of this one, the whole caboodle fails, like this was Bluebeard's special dropdown, the one containing his dead wives, and while I can set the value of all the others, this one will. Not. Pass.

Some nitwit at this point will say, well, why don't you just load the data into the database in bulk? And I'll fling a chair at them before trying to explain about the miseries of dealing with bureucracy, database developers and not-invented-here syndrome, until one or other of us pulls our own ears off to block out the noise.

There were no nitwits in the office today, so I downloaded Automation Everywhere, which is basically Workplace Macro with nicer logos, (and it doesn't crash every time I try to save a macro, which helps.) And it will play just fine with Bluebeard's Dropdown of Dead Wifely Concealment, so if I'm happy to glue several different macro tools together in series, I've almost automated the whole damn thing. Although now I'm getting phoned up by a salesdrone somewhere trying to get me to buy it, via the medium of a teleconference call on a static-filled line from the 1960s, and I'm wondering how many more days I'll be doing this before it would have been quick and more reliable to just punch everything in myself, but it was about then that I mistook the sound of steam escaping from my ears to be the noise of a whistle blowing, at which point I downed tools and ran out the door, until tomorrow's next thrilling episode of Swearing At Computers

And ... relax.

1 Yes, alright, and a lazy mathematician is a lazy mathematician also.


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