Today, I built a web crawler that auto-populates a spreadsheet with stock prices.
It wasn’t very advanced: It pulled a few companies’ quotes from CNNMoney and funneled them into an Excel file, along with time stamps. But it was the first bot I’ve ever made, and I did it in under an hour with almost nonexistent coding experience.
The last time I coded anything was in the late 1990s, when an elementary school project required us to learn HTML. I’m probably the prime candidate for software designed to help nontechnical people create their own automated processes, and that’s what I used to build this bot.
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Deloitte’s federal team members walked me through it. For the past year and a half, they’ve been hosting similar “Build-a-bot” sessions for federal agencies increasingly interested in making their employees more efficient.
The goal, Deloitte's team tells me, is to help the government use simple, rule-based automated bots to complete repetitive administrative tasks—maybe checking emails, transferring data from one file to another, submitting financial records to auditing groups—thereby freeing humans up to focus on more important work.
Deloitte doesn’t sell the software. A handful of companies already sell robotic process automation tools; I used “Automation Anywhere,” which let me drag, drop and customize the roughly 20 tiny tasks that told my bot which stocks to type into CNNMoney's search engine and where to put the data. Instead, Deloitte advises agencies on how best to implement bots and RPA tools, and which tasks could easily be automated.
Since January, the team has done 63 demos in the federal government, Deloitte Federal Strategy and Operations Principal Marc Mancher said. And the Office of Management and Budget’s most recent directive, instructing agencies to streamline their workforces, could prompt agencies to invest more in automation.
NASA, a customer of Deloitte’s relatively new Process Robotics division, plans to set up a bot management office to offer bot-development services to other parts of the agency. Eventually, end-users—any employee whose job involves repetitive tasks—might program their own bots as needed, Mancher said.
It’s sometimes a challenge to sell federal employees automation platforms because there’s a perception it requires technical skills, even if it’s fairly user friendly, said Chris Huff, a senior manager at Deloitte. To counter this view, Deloitte staff describes the building process as "training a bot" instead of "programming" one, he said.
And it’s not about squeezing more work out of humans by taking away the simple tasks, the team explains. Federal customers want to devote more of their employees’ time to tasks that can’t yet be automated.
For instance, bots have helped reduce the paperwork burdens for researchers at one federal customer, which Deloitte wasn't authorized to name, Mancher said. Instead of filing tedious records, “the scientists are now in the laboratory, doing scientific work," he said.