My colleague is a Robot – Literally

Terminator, R2D2, iRobot, Wall-E, Transformers, RoboCop, to name a few. We’ve all seen and love these movies and when we think of  robots, these are the images that mostly come to mind . Hollywood has long since prophesied the rise of the machine as something from our wildest of dreams and more often than not nightmares. We see them taking over the world or in some instances replacing us. However, when one interprets the reality and distinguishes fact from fiction robots are not here to conquer us, quite the opposite… 

Images courtesy of Google Images

I want to debunk some common myths around  a topic that has become more mainstream in the last couple of years  and that is, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), share some of my experiences and the opportunities that RPA can create for you. 

Encounter with a Bot

My first encounter with a bot was not as dramatic as I imagined. While bots have been in existence in most industries like manufacturing and automotive, having to interact with bots was the furthest thing that I thought I would be doing as part of my day to day work and it has intimately affected how I operate and see the world. The power of exponential technology such as RPA, comes with these strengths giving the everyday man the ability to be part of the 4IR journey, albeit in baby steps. Okay enough with the philosophicals, let me tell you my journey with RPA.

 A get away

In the outskirts of Johannesburg all the way in Muldersdrift, I was getting ready for a nice  year end getaway with my team to discuss our achievements for the year. It was a laid back event and I must say I was on relaxation mode, until our Partner started mentioning bots. What do we have to do with bots, I mean we are just consultants and we solve business problems. Yeah we work with technology but bots? this I have to hear. RPA was then introduced to us as a technology that emerged from Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), where BPO companies were employing this technology to create further efficiencies from their shared services operations. Okay, it is not R2D2, RPA is basically non-invasive technology that works on top of existing applications automating human interaction with the applications as part of a process. Be it payments processing, accounting reconciliation, data retrieval, invoice processing, etc. (See: for a demonstration)  Now my myths debunked and my interest indulged. I then undertook to explore this technology a bit further. This was a good start for me given that I have always been interested in Machine Learning and how it can be used for business and RPA was that start of the journey.

I got back to the office, sacrificed my December holiday to learn about this RPA technology that I felt will be very important for my career going forward. Lucky enough Uipath (Uipath) has made its technology available for free and without the need of any licensing arrangement. I was then able to start working with this technology and learning what the fuss is all about. Through some Youtube videos made available by Uipath I then started playing with the tool learning about it’s various features and capabilities. To make this practical I had to think about something very small to automate, a process. 

The first process I automated  was the retrieval of stock price information on the JSE and then doing some calculations on this data on Excel. Well I wanted to invest and how convenient would it be to have someone(bot) to retrieve this data for me on a daily basis from which  I then make decisions, easy peasy. I then encountered my first challenge with this technology, one day the Bot would work and then the next day it breaks. Wow, a bot that needs handholding to deliver any value, that sucks. With further exploration I then got to learn that the bot needs to be guided through how it needs to automate through reliable elements or attributes on the target interface. Thus, if something moves or looks different on the target application, the bot will not be able to identify elements as it uses the user interface. So one needs to use reliable attributes (learn more about this on h After this mini victory I was then ready to take my journey further with RPA and start automating business processes. What started as a small Proof of concept (POC)   evolved into a fully fledged proposition that we launched as a business to add to our offerings around process efficiency.. 

The very first business problem was the extraction of business reports. This used to take an operational person 3 hours of their day before they begin with their actual job. A whole 3 hours, this to me did not sound like efficiency at all and surely people can use this time to do more efficient stuff…

I believe every business manager’s objective should be to  automate as many processes as possible and free up people to do value driving activities. In such a short space of time I have learned about RPA and the technical world of a Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) process, not too bad. Such is the power of the technology that one is able to learn development principles without having to be deeply technical.

I have never looked back ever since and was able to build a career as a RPA consultant and conduct further implementations using this technology and creating business value. The journey still continues, with advancements such as OCR, process mining, cognitive services that will result in further Intelligent Automation and unlocking further value. To this day , I am happy to say my colleague is a Bot and together we solve business problems.

Getting Started, Getting skilled

To get started on your RPA journey I would recommend starting with Uipath, which has embraced the community and open principles by creating an online LMS platform, Uipath Academy. Uipath Academy provides a comprehensive training programme covering developer, business analysis, solution architecture and infrastructure training tracks.  You can also download the tool and start creating your own automation. RPA is a great way to get started in your digital skills development journey and provides a way to work with advanced technologies that will come with AI advancements in business processes in the foreseeable future. Happy Automating!