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Image: Allison Rose Barry

What does a job in robotic process automation look like?

26 Jul 2021

Deloitte’s Allison Rose Barry talks about her job as a robotic process automation developer and the role automation has played during the pandemic.

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Many who work in the automation sector focus on robotic process automation (RPA). This is essentially technology that enables software or bots to carry out repetitive and rule-based digital tasks.

Given a set of rules, the robot can carry out the tasks a human might do manually with a mouse and keyboard in a fraction of the time, freeing the human worker up to focus their energy elsewhere.

But what’s it like working in the area of RPA? Allison Rose Barry is an RPA developer with Deloitte, having joined the company’s graduate programme in 2019.

‘The effect of RPA and the time it saves in high-pressure situations really struck a chord with me’

Was there a moment that first stirred your interest in automation?

I came across an article on LinkedIn in April 2020 that discussed a surge in the uptake of RPA across the healthcare industry due to the sudden influx of patients (and the associated administrative work) that arose from the pandemic.

I was really interested in how RPA was being used to maximise the efficiency of operations and to increase the resilience of the healthcare system – whether it be through the delivery of faster Covid-19 testing services, automatically filling orders for vital hospital equipment and supplies, supporting call centre agents, or even enabling supports for remote workers.

The article had reported that a hospital in Dublin had implemented a bot within their infection control and prevention department, which saved nurses three hours a day (or 936 hours a year) in administrative tasks. The time given back by that bot to the clinician or nurse could be invaluable when invested into the important work, such as patient care and disease control.

The effect of RPA and the time it saves in high-pressure situations really struck a chord with me. Making healthcare as efficient and accessible as possible was always an area I was interested in, and seeing automation applied as a solution to enable this really sparked my interest in RPA as a whole. Since then, I found myself developing automations for two public sector clients, some of which were critical to the operation and enablement of public services and supports during the pandemic.

What are some of the most exciting automation projects you have worked on?

When the pandemic hit last year, I got the opportunity to work on an automation needed urgently for a public sector client. Before we came in, the client had a significant number of highly qualified employees redeployed from their full-time positions to enter, monitor and track virus-related data onto their IT systems.

This was a massive drain on resources and the volume of data and tedious nature of the administrative work was overwhelming. Within two months, our team reduced admin burden to complete these tasks by 87pc.

At the peak of the pandemic, the bots reduced the admin burden by 43 hours for every 100 positive Covid cases. I was closely involved with scaling this automation up in response to spikes in demand/positive cases. I worked with the team to configure a virtual workforce (what we call a ‘high-density robot’) to scale our automation to deal with the significant spike in positive case reporting.

The employees that were previously redeployed to do this work were given the time back to use their expertise and qualifications in the national response to Covid-19. Using automation has meant that our client avoided having to assign key staff members to manual, labour-intensive transcribing, transferring and entering data into IT systems for many months.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day for you?

Every day varies, but as a developer I’d typically spend up to four hours a day building and testing an automation or monitoring a bot running in production. I work closely with the business analyst on my team in documenting processes we’re automating, quantifying and analysing the benefits of automations in production and solving problems or implementing changes in the code if requested by stakeholders.

My day-to-day role also involves collaboration with business users and process owners when gathering requirements for a build, answering technical queries, evaluating change requests or handing a solution over for their management. On the wider team within Deloitte, myself and other colleagues are responsible for publishing a monthly newsletter where we keep the team up to date on news about emerging RPA technologies, vendors, case studies and general industry performance. It’s a good outlet to foster a sense of community within the team and to gain more insight into the impact RPA is having on industries everywhere.

What skills and tools do you use on a daily basis?

In terms of physical tools, I primarily use UiPath and Blue Prism, which is software used to build and test automations. They both provide a control area/orchestrator from where bots are managed, monitored, triggered and scheduled. Additionally, I use Microsoft Visio to map out the as-is and to-be business process, which is normally done during the solution design stage of the automation journey. These maps form the basis of the automation and are verified by stakeholders before the build commences.

Problem-solving is probably the most important skill needed on a daily basis when delivering an RPA project. If there is an error in the code, the bot will follow its instructions to the letter and will replicate this error until it is identified and resolved by a human.

It is therefore really important to be able to critically analyse and question every step of the process before the build commences. This ensures that all scenarios and potential errors are accounted for, thus enabling a more stable and effective automation from the get-go.

What are the most exciting applications you foresee for RPA?

I am really excited about the future of RPA. I am most looking forward to seeing applications of cognitive and intelligent automation within healthcare and science. When bots are enhanced with machine learning and artificial intelligence, the opportunities are endless.

This technology could be applied to assist pathologists in analysing tissue samples and making more accurate diagnoses, or even employed as a mechanism to optimise the identification of tumours from CT or MRI scans.

AI can be leveraged to recognise patterns (whether it be patterns in the vascularity, topography or consistency of a tumour or abnormal tissue growth) that are too subtle for the human eye to identify, which could ultimately have life-saving consequences for a patient.

It is my belief that hyper-automation, which encompasses RPA, AI and machine learning, will have a major part to play in the advancement of medicine and healthcare throughout the years to come.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area?

Whilst it is true that many tasks previously performed by human employees are now automatable with RPA, the technology itself isn’t independent from humans and can’t reproduce the level of consciousness and critical thinking that humans are capable of.

From seeing the effects of RPA implementations first-hand, my view is that the workforce is augmented by RPA in a way that is beneficial to both the company and employees. RPA allows employees to increase their efficiency, job satisfaction and productivity by giving them the time back to do the value-added activities that require human input.

In deploying RPA, employee roles may be redefined and talent reallocated to focus on customer-facing tasks since there is a lessened need to focus on tedious, back-office tasks. I often think that many jobs that exist now didn’t exist over a decade ago. I think that this will also be the case in a decade from now as RPA becomes more widely adopted across all industries.

When you first started working in this field, what were you most surprised to learn was important in the role?

I quickly learned that the most important skill is communication. People often forget that software bots cannot think and behave like a human. Every possible scenario and decision point in a process must be anticipated and implemented within the code.

If you think about it, for each decision in a business process, the number of scenarios a bot can execute multiplies by at least two (with two outcomes per decision). It is therefore really important to be familiar with the manual process and to collaborate closely with the business users in gaining that knowledge and in understanding their pain points as they carry out the tasks to be automated. Learning from and listening to the business user is crucial to delivering an effective RPA solution.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

What I like most is the satisfaction and delight I see business users react with when we propose a solution to automate the more repetitive and tedious aspects of their daily tasks. The pandemic created unprecedented backlogs of administrative work for many of those in the public sector.

I most enjoyed having a part in making their life a little a bit easier, by alleviating their workload through RPA and giving them the time back to do the important work.

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