Automation is transforming the operations of organisations in every sector, spreading fears that job opportunities for people are being decimated.
The automation of repetitive tasks, through software robots, has been one of the top priorities of IT leaders for few years now and the Covid-19 pandemic has, arguably, put it at the top of to-do lists.
Technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) were already an easy sell to business leaders. Which executive wouldn’t want something that reduces the time and cost of doing millions of repetitive tasks every year, improves customer services at the same time, and lets your employees apply their human intelligence to more valuable tasks?
And which NHS trust wants specialist midwives to be carrying out the administration of blood tests for pregnant women, a paper-based process that takes them a couple of hours a day, when a software robot can do it?
Or, which building society wouldn’t want to automate the processing of mortgage holiday applications during the pandemic, when contact centre staff faced 2,000 calls a day?
Gartner said that in 2020, double-digit growth in spending on RPA will be recorded, hitting $1.58bn worldwide. The analyst company expects businesses to intensify their RPA usage over the next few years. It said 90% of large organisations will adopt RPA in some form by 2022, and will go on to triple their RPA portfolio capacity by 2024.
But there is a downside. The people who did these jobs before will have to be found something else to do, or they may become defunct.
The good news is, whatever they end up doing is likely to be more fulfilling than the mundane, repetitive tasks that the robots have taken over from them. The bad news is there will be a period when organisations will be unable to find new roles for everyone.
Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X: Tales for an accelerated culture, told Computer Weekly back in 2017 that there was likely to be a period of uncertainty for many people. “Maybe there will be new job categories created, but maybe it will take a long time for that to happen,” he said. “In the meantime, you will get AI [artificial intelligence] replacing millions of jobs, and people will ask themselves what their jobs will be.”
But one career that owes its very existence to the rise of the bots is that of RPA developer. Computer Weekly spoke to some of those embarking on their journeys into a career that has business and IT in its DNA.
An industry is being created around automation with not only the software suppliers becoming well-known brands in IT circles, but entire businesses being created to train people to train bots. Manchester-based Robiquity is an example. It recruits and trains graduates before placing them within customer businesses to automate processes. Robiquity’s customers include Jaguar Land Rover and electronics retailer AO.com.
A career in RPA development with companies like Robiquity appeals to those with both tech and business backgrounds, with logical thinking a valuable trait that most practitioners share. Another thing they often have in common is that RPA was news to them before engaging with Robiquity.
After graduating in software engineering at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Samuel Bean, 24, took a graduate role at IT consultancy FDM in London, which places technology staff within its business customer base.
Through FDM, Bean was placed at Robiquity, where he took a five-week intensive training programme to become an RPA developer. “The intense nine-to-five training helped me become an accredited developer in Blue Prism technology,” he said.
Bean said that being from a tech background, he found much of the training quite easy, but added that it taught him how to engage with clients and how to determine a process to automate.
On graduation, he was placed at JLR for two years, supporting the manufacturer’s automation project, as a consultant for Robiquity.
Bean’s learnings at JLR enabled him to understand the benefits of RPA to big businesses, as well as the implementation challenges. “I learned a lot about how big companies function internally, and the obstacles you have to get over to implement robots,” he said.
The challenge of overcoming scepticism about RPA’s purpose was also laid bare during his time at JLR. “There is sensitivity around RPA and you have to be able to explain that it is not there to replace people, but to enrich the workforce and things like that,” he said.
Bean said there was a team at JLR that was focused on getting across the positive message of RPA, so it was not just left to the developers.
When he started at JLR, there were six developers working on 20 processes, but then company set up an RPA centre of excellence and hired permanent staff.
Bean has since become a full-time employee at Robiquity, where he is placed in businesses as a consultant when projects come up.
The job has given Bean the opportunity to broaden his skills with an understanding of how businesses operate.
“When I was at university before I had a good understanding of the IT industry, I was hoping to do some coding or development job,” he said. “Having now got into RPA, I realised that my initial expectation was not what I really wanted. I prefer being a bit more interactive with the business and not chained to a desk all day developing.”
He said RPA is a great middle ground between business and IT because you end up speaking to members of clients’ business teams.
Bean said the people he studied with at Cardiff University have gone in many different directions, and RPA was not something any of them would have expected. “If you asked them what they thought about RPA, they would probably not know what you were talking about,” he said.
But it is not just a career for those with an IT background, he added. “Most people I trained with had some IT knowledge, but I know some people who had none, but came from a business background.”
One of these is Jack Lovett, 25. He took a similar path as Bean, starting at FDM, where he was also placed at Robiquity as a contractor. Then, like Bean, he had a two-year placement at JLR before being taken on by Robiquity as an employee.
But in contrast to Bean, Lovett had no IT experience, having studied business management at university.
New career path
After university, he took temporary jobs in various pubs, as well as a management role at Greggs. Little did he expect a new career to begin with the main subject matter something new to him. “I had never heard of RPA, but had an interview with Robiquity, through FDM, and was taken on,” said Lovett.
His first few months were tough, given that the first part involved tech. “I ended up training as an RPA developer, which was quite difficult as I didn’t have a tech background,” he said.
But he soon picked it up. “It’s all about doing flow diagrams because all the coding is in the background,” he said. “All you really need is to be logic-based, taking information from one system and putting it into another.
“I feel I am a logic-based person and a lot of it is problem-solving. You build it, test it, and if it doesn’t work, you go back again.”
As well as JLR, Lovett also spent time placed at online retailer AO.com, which sells electronic equipment such as fridges and freezers. There he completed a three-week assessment and pilot project virtually.
At AO.com, he was part of a team that automated the recording of contact centre cases. Contact centre staff previously had to copy and paste notes between IT systems, but this was automated, “saving everyone 30 seconds 2,000 times a day”, said Lovett.
Like Bean, he believes a lot of education is required around RPA. “Initially, when I tell people about my job, they think I am replacing people, but you need to educate people,” he said. “It is more about saving a bit of time from more people, allowing them to do other things.”
Overcoming the scepticism is rewarding for Lovett, who said many workers who might have been sceptical about RPA now realise its benefits. “So many people come to me and say ‘you have saved me so much time’,” he added.