How I became enamored with automation

Chip Oglesby bio photo By Chip Oglesby

One of my first summer jobs in college was working with a company that made flexographic and lithograph ink. I didn’t get to do anything cool there; instead I was put in the back of the warehouse working in shipping and receiving.

I remember I had to fill out an introductory survey that they put in the company newsletter. I was chided a lot that summer because for one section of the survey where I used a quote “Work smart, not hard.” I can now see why that may have not gone over so well, there were some very proud, hard working people there. But the quote meant something to me then and it means something to me now.

My job in the warehouse was simple. I had to assemble boxes, take cans of paint, apply a sticker, fill the box, wrap them up and put them on a pallet. This was an area with no AC during the middle of the summer. I thought I would die from a heatstroke.

One time I told my coworker that “There just simply has to be a better way of doing this. Couldn’t we create a machine to do this?” Her response was a simple “JUST SHUT UP AND BUILD THOSE DAMN BOXES!!!!” It probably had eight steps to assembling the entire thing, but I can still do the motions to this day from rote memory.

Even now I can still her voice in my head saying “just build those damn boxes.” The funny thing is, so much of what we do in life is just like building those boxes and because we do it so often we don’t even think about it.

In Photojournalism

In my first real job as a photojournalist, prior to starting I taught myself how to use Adobe Photoshop with a book called Real World Photoshop 6. It was a book that I bought in 2002 because no one at my college had ever used a digital camera let alone Photoshop.

When you’re a photojournalist you’ll shoot hundreds of different things from portraits to basketball games. Over time I realized that things like basketball games usually always had the same horrible lighting with the same white balancing problems. I was able to use Photoshop’s actions feature to create an automation that would open a folder of images, create a new adjustable layer, apply some levels and curves, flatten the image and save them for publication. I could do this all with good accuracy and it made it repeatable.

Instead of wasting time toning every individual image, I could spend time writing better captions which I was not good at.

In web development

During a later job at another newspaper I was working in their web department. Prior to that I had a personal website that I use to maintain but it involved hand coding each individual page. I had no idea the possibilities of what could be done on the web.

When I joined the web team, one of my first questions was “Do you build all of these pages by hand?” “We use to, but now we use a content management system.” A content management system in 2006 was pretty revolutionary. It meant that web editors could focus on writing stories and not building websites. That’s where I also learned about the joys of Wordpress.

Like the post that I shared earlier this week, we should always be looking for ways that we can reduce redundancy and increase efficiency.

One thing I appreciate the most now is the data science community is pushing really hard to create and sustain reproducible research. For us that could mean sharing your code, your data, building a docker image with the right software and package versions or many other things. This is a huge leap for people both personal and professional. I know that data science is suppose to be “sexy” but in reality a lot of data science is doing the same steps over and over again.

I will admit that not everything in life can or should be automated. Self driving cars for example without good machine learning or AI will be hard because there are so many variables. More simple things like a Nest thermostat that automatically adjusts based on your needs though could be super helpful for a lot of people.

This is why I try to encourage so many people to think programmatically about things. I don’t want automation to take your job away from you, I want you to learn how augment what your doing and give yourself more flexibility.