Don't wish for an office assistant - hire an "automation assistant"​ instead

(Originally posted on LinkedIn, on October 23rd, 2017)

While it is nice to have someone managing your business appointments, current executives need another type of help. Please welcome the automation assistant.
It is part of the corporate culture that when someone achieves a certain executive level, he or she starts working with an assistant that helps in many different areas of the executive’s life. From planning the weekly agenda and meetings, to working on paperwork, and, for senior assistants, even helping on strategic and tactic approaches to the daily challenges in the business.
When you work in a startup, you don’t have time or resources for such leisure. You work with lots of talented people who help you, but not exactly like assistants. Each of them have their own roles that complement yours, but you still need to manage your daily tasks.
Some of the people who have thought deeply about this assistant role see it as a potentially great opportunity not just as a final career position, but also for executive-wannabes to understand how being a real one is, and what it actually means beyond the high pay check and the cool parties, which usually comprises 70+-hour workweeks.
What I have found in the past years of running a startup is that, while it may feel nice to know that you’ve got someone reminding you of your business appointments for the day, current executives and managers need another type of assistant, who could made their life much much better: the automation assistant.

No, it's not a robot. As its name implies, this role is focused on automating or semi-automating as many tasks as possible of the executive’s professional (or even personal, if that improves business) life. With the advent of relatively simple automation technologies, from impressively simple-yet-effective IFTTT to marketing automation tools like Autopilot or Mailchimp, and the appearance of new and advanced APIs that enable developers to quickly assemble orchestration of services as never before, an automation assistant should be able to increase the executive’s productivity in a never-seen-before scalable way.
The role of automation assistant focuses on automating or semi-automating as many critical business tasks as possible.
Some simple examples follow to show my point:
  • Implementing simple IFTTT rules to fully integrate the executive's social networks with Pocket. 
  • Improving this by automatically generating a weekly or biweekly newsletter with my favourite readings for my friends or co-workers. 
  • Mining the work email to generate automatic actions, such as filtering, warnings, categorization of to dos for the day, or storage of relevant documents in content repositories. 
  • Semi-automation of actions based on calendar events. For instance, a trip to London should trigger some basic actions like finding flight hours and prices, and hotels close to the location of the event, if feasible.
  • Automating a daily access to your website to check its status, whether its basic use cases work every time, etc., sending warnings if that’s not the case. For instance, using UptimeRobot.
  • Compiling related emails into daily or weekly digests. For instance, I get different emails from publishers re: addition, removal, update of their titles. I’d better prefer a single email per day or, even better, automate some of the actions so I do not have to do all of them but only the most sophisticated ones. 
  • Manage and improve virtual assistants like Amy to make sure they do their job. Call it a “meta assistant” if you like ūüėÉ
  • Gathering actionable KPIs of the executive’s daily work for further analysis. Like delays in unanswered emails deemed as important.
  • Crafting pilot chatbots for internal use that could potentially be in production for client relationships and the like, using tools like ChatFuel or MotionAI.
  • And there are many more, related to financial activities, automation scripts or shortcuts for typical actions performed every day… possibilities are limitless. 
Of course, if an executive has some basic technical background, he or she could manage to avoid the use of an automation assistant by doing things by him/herself. There are some good books to help, like this one by O'Reilly. Besides the argument that an executive should not spend time on these actions -which could be argued-, this role could actually become part of a startup strategy of, as it grows, getting technical people who show interest and promise on business roles, to gain a better understanding of what being an executive means, while providing an incredibly useful service in the meantime.
The role requires being comfortable in technical tasks. Current visual tools are good but are still not enough.
The role does not require a deep expert in computer science. There is currently an increasing number of tools that ease this automation work. However, some non-trivial coding skills are required. Like it or not, from the moment one starts this automation process, local access to command line tools, APIs that require some custom coding, integration among services, … all of them require to roll up our sleeves and get to code. An automation assistant needs to enjoy coding as a way to do work once, and be automated for a long while.

Yes, this may be a job that will not last forever. Virtual assistants are getting better and better and, who knows, maybe in ten years we will all have a Jarvis assisting us. But in the meantime, I think it’s a great job for people wanting to understand how a company actually works, and a great help to founders, executives or managers.


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