usable in any place a human can be used


learn autoit

[caption id="attachment_655" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Bezels and shadows and reflections, oh my"]autoit[/caption]

If you use windows at work or at play this post is for you, macheads and linux people I'm sorry, this post probably won't help you much. I have had the joy of doing documentation work for the last 2-3 months at work. Gnarly, ugly documentation that serves little purpose other than making someone feel happy that there are reams and reams of documentation. At some point, probably around the 5th document, I made the realization that out of 20 pages it was mostly boilerplate, with about 8 things peppered throughout that changed. I decided that it would be easiest to make a template document and then just do a find and replace on those eight symbols [[DOCNUM]] [[DOCNAME]] [[DOCTRANSACTION]] etc.

Productivity shot up, I could now stub out a document in a few minutes instead of the hour or so that it used to take to manually hunt through and change things. All was well and after a day or two of find / replacing I had stubbed out the 80 or so documents. Then came the meeting where it was decided that 2 new sections would be needed and that 8 sections could be removed as being redundant. This victory for common sense was also a giant headache, as I didn't really look forward to restubbing 80 documents. There had to be an easier way, a better way, I remembered a screen driver tool I had some exposure to at a past engagement, AutoIt.

After reading through the documentation and goofing around with it for a while yesterday I now have a fully functional script that will automatically stub out all of the documentation with the click of a button. A task that used to be an error-prone, manually intensive process now requires no intervention. We can restub on demand now, so changing the template is no problem.

The Good

  • Saves a ton of time

  • Removes the human aspect from an existing process

  • Centralizes specific knowledge

  • Easy to write and test

The new script saves a ton of time, I can regenerate all documentation in about 10 minutes, so I click a button and go walk around the office bugging people. AutoIt simply takes a known working process and steps in to be the person driving it, I didn't have to take time dreaming up a brand new workflow, I could focus on just getting it done. The script is now the system of record for the specific things that change from document to document, which is nice for trying to determine at a glance what makes an HCR1 different from a ARC6 command, without digging through 40 pages of documentation. AutoIt also utilizes a stripped down version of SciTE with auto-completion and built in support for compiling and running, which makes writing and testing the script a breeze.

The Bad

  • Ugly syntax (like VBScript and PHP had a bastard child)

  • Oddly organized documentation and variably helpful community

  • Inherently brittle scripts

  • Still slower than I'd like

  • Foreground processing

AutoIt has an ugly syntax (think VBScript), but it has all the pieces parts to make a nice script, functions and variables. The documentation takes a little getting used to, there is plenty in there, but it could be organized better. AutoIt depends on things like the window title and absolute paths, so it is inherently brittle, I doubt this script would run unaltered on someone else's machine. This could just be me being a n00b at AutoIt but I followed the practices laid out in the tutorials and the documentation. The other bad part about AutoIt is that it drives your screen, it simulates you pressing buttons and mousing about, so the script is slow and you can't interact with the machine while its running or you will probably mess everything up.


After proclaiming my victory over the documentation monster, I got some replies from colleagues asking why I didn't just make a powershell or ruby program or java program or something. I could have cracked open OpenWriter or something and attempted to build some massive program that could create .docx files, but that would have taken a ton of time. The AutoIt solution was incredibly quick to produce, took about 2 hours of playing around with it. There were a bunch of side benefits that the alternatives wouldn't have had. The template file is just a plain ordinary .docx file with all kinds of crazy formatting and images, instead of trying to figure out how to reproduce this in code, I can use Word to do the heavy lifting for me. This allows business users to change the template and we can rapidly restub and get back up and running.


You should go and learn AutoIt or AppleScript or whatever GUI driver program is available for your platform. It is not the tool for every job, but it's perfect for some jobs. Being the person on your team that can take some boring, error-prone, laborious task and turn it into a turn-crank task is a great thing. You can save your team time, get back to doing actual work more quickly, and make a name for yourself as a problem solver.

1 comment:

  1. You gotta find a way to quit your dayjob, it's sapping your subconscious need to create.

    Automating documentation, while rationale from your standpoint seems like a terrible way to spend your day.

    *you can blast out of the mundane*

    I hope I can as well