Five Questions For Aron Korenblit
The creator of Automate All The Things tells us how he got started, how he approaches education in his role at Airtable, and the Director's Cut name for AATT.
Aron Korenblit’s mission is to help people work smarter, not harder. He runs Automate All The Things, which is both a newsletter and a Twitch stream. He’s also the creator of The Essential Guide to Airtable. Last year, he joined Airtable in an official capacity on their Education team.
Oh, and you can catch the Automatter team on the AATT stream on Wednesday, March 17th at 6pm ET/3pm PT. Check the streaming schedule here and add our collab to your calendar!
What got you interested in the "no-code" space and what is the source of your motivation to, well... automate all of the things?
Automate All The Things started when I noticed how much time my close friends spent on mundane tasks. Many of my friends are lawyers and they would have manual processes for counting the days ahead of legally-imposed deadlines. I did what any normal person would do and organized dinner parties where I'd try to automate everybody’s timesucks.
I soon realized that my friends epitomized the modern knowledge worker: they had complicated workflows and didn't know where to start improving them. You don’t know what you don’t know. Until you see examples of how a Zapier/Airtable/whatever else can help you, you’re not going to make time to learn the tools and improve your processes so you can do less of that annoying stuff.
My motivation for automating all the things in my own personal life is simply the knowledge that if you ask me to do the same thing over and over and over, I’ll probably procrastinate and do it wrong when I get to it. And I know I’m not the only one who deeply resents recurring manual tasks. That’s what motivates me to teach other folks to automate.
I wouldn’t say I have a particular interest in no-code per se, that’s just the thing I know and understand that enables me to automate stuff. If I was a better coder or if writing code was simpler for me, I’d probably write code.
What are the most common misconceptions you encounter about Airtable or process automation in general? What mistakes do people make when spinning up new bases?
Too often creators forget the fact that there’s a people element to process improvement. I’d even go so far as to say that the human element is the most important part of implementing a new tool or automating a process.
Building a great base (or whatever tool you’re migrating to) is necessary but not sufficient. Getting folks to adopt the new tool, understand what their role is in the process, feel confident in that role etc.—that’s the challenge. Setting up the tool is (or should be) relatively easy.
You recently went deep on spreadsheets and where they make sense vs. when a database makes sense. What do you tell people who might have some databases or dashboards that live in spreadsheets and are still readable at a human scale but are reluctant to migrate to a product like Airtable that has more flexibility in terms of process and workflow automation?
The first thing I’ll say is that if you have a dashboard that lives in Excel and you’re happy with it, I wouldn’t recommend migrating it to a new tool.
Now, you may be in a situation where you’re using sheets for something it’s not designed to do, which is a situation a lot of folks are in! Maybe you need real time collaboration, more than two dimensions for your data, want to visualize your information in different ways, need to query the information via API, etc. What are the limitations you’re hitting? Those limitations are what should guide you to the right tool. Find the tool that breaks down those barriers.
If your barriers are real time collaboration and a need to understand relationships in your information, Airtable might be a good solve for that! But maybe you just want a Kanban board in which case Trello might be sufficient.
I think the first step in improvement is recognizing what the issue is and not defaulting to a tool.
Airtable is one of the key products in the modern no-code stack and is a perfect complement to companies like Zapier and Webflow. How do you think about education in a context where so much functionality and magic takes place outside of the product you're supposed to be evangelizing? Is there still power in automation that stays entirely within a single platform?
This is something I wrestle with everyday: most low code users are unsophisticated users. They’re getting to grips with what any tool can do. They’re not power users that see Airtable—or other low code tools—as a relational database that can be integrated with Zapier as middleware and Webflow as a beautiful front-end. They think of Airtable as a content calendar that organizes their information better than any other tool before it.
So from an educational standpoint, if reach or net improvement in people’s workflows is my objective, I should be teaching the basics. How to set up your base or create simple Zaps. For early users, all of the functionality and magic of automation happens in one tool!
As those users become sophisticated, they naturally hit the limitations of the product. In Airtable, that might be a missing integration in Automations (at which point Zapier may come in), the need to write a short script (where the script marketplace might help), or realizing that a front end to this DB might be useful (and so they venture out to learn Webflow).
This latter group is who I enjoy teaching to the most but it’s a much smaller audience. So I tend to alternate between the two. Hopefully everyone can find what they’re looking for!
I know "Automate All The Things" sounds concrete, but is there anything you would never automate or a space or function where you oppose automation on principle?
I see automation as what enables folks to provide great service. What “great service” means is different to each person or business. For me, great service is a weekly newsletter and a fun informative stream. For Airtable, great service is over 200,000 organizations doing better work, enjoying the product, trusting our service and hundreds of other things we need to do to make our users happy. For you it may be increasing the diversity in the VC world.
Ambitious goals generate a lot of work. But a lot of that work is undifferentiated heavy lifting: things that folks expect from you but don’t really make a difference. I don’t think anyone particularly cares about how my newsletter is delivered, how I manage guests on my stream, what servers my website is on. I don’t particularly care either—I just know I need to do those things to work and be organized. It’s in this undifferentiated heavy lifting where I believe automation can play a big part. It’s taking care of all the things that folks expect from you but aren’t explicitly part of your mission. Automating that stuff lets you focus in on the things that matter! For me that’s finding the right guests, writing something people will read and putting on a good show. Even take my bank: I love the fact that I can email them and schedule time with a banker despite the fact that I only pay them ~$20 a month. What I hate is that they don’t let me do all the undifferentiated stuff from home like sign documents, open accounts etc.
Automation doesn’t mean taking the human out of processes, it’s about putting the human front and center in situations where uniquely human traits like empathy, quick wit and broad understanding are necessary.
Looking back on it maybe I should have called my stream Automate All The Undifferentiated Things but just doesn’t sound very catchy does it?