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Work Smarter With Virtual Assistants

System administrators have one universal problem, no matter what operating systems they manage or environment they work in: Too few hours in the day. You can employ all the time management tools in the world, work longer hours, and Get Things Done until the cows come home--there will always be additional scut work on your plate that could be more done, more effectively by a virtual assistant.

Virtual assistants aren't new, but I'm a new convert and I'm surprised by how many tech folks haven't even considered using them. Many IT folks reject the idea that they have tasks that they can pawn off on an "assistant"--probably because they have the idea that assistants are for executive types.

Another objection is cost: Until you look into it, you don't realize how inexpensive a virtual assistant can be. This is doubly true when you compare the time you spend doing unskilled tasks versus your hourly rate. Most of us pay somebody to change our oil, not because we can't do it, but because the time and effort involved is not worth it compared to using a service.

You'll find a number of virtual assistant services, but I'm going to focus on two here: Fancy Hands and Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

Fancy Hands

Fancy Hands is a personal assistant service that sells a set number of tasks every month for a flat fee. For less than $50 a month you get 15 requests.

What can Fancy Hands do for a harried system administrator? Pretty much any discrete task that can be easily explained in an email, that doesn't involve a lot of creative work, real-world interaction or payment information. For example, you might use Fancy Hands to call five vendors to get pricing for a replacement part. You might use the service to set up appointments with potential employees for interviews or to check for the best hotel prices for a business trip.

I signed up for the service last month. So far, I have used it for things like scheduling appointments for a haircut and to take my cat to the vet. I've also used it to find Twitter accounts and blog URLs for speakers at conferences that fit my writing beats. You might be saying "those don't sound like system administration tasks," to which I'd reply you're exactly right. They're not. This is why you want to hand them off to someone else and spend your time working on something more useful that requires your skills and abilities.

The time I save using Fancy Hands, I can use writing or working on technical projects.

What can't they do? Basically, anything involving your payment information, anything that requires skilled or creative activity, or anything that requires someone to show up someplace. So you'll still have to pay your own bills, write your own business plans or reports, and pick up your own groceries.

At a guess, I'd say that any task I've handed off to Fancy Hands saves me between 10 minutes and several hours. It takes about a minute for me to send an email to the service with specific directions, and the reply usually comes the same day. (Don't use Fancy Hands to try to do something that needs to happen in the next hour or so.)

Amazon Mechanical Turk

Fancy Hands specializes in one-off tasks. You can break up a much larger project into multiple tasks, but if you have a larger project that is long on short, simple tasks, then Mechanical Turk might be the answer.

Setting up projects in Mechanical Turk is a bit more complex than Fancy Hands. You set up what's called a "Human Intelligence Task" (HIT) and set a price for each HIT and a deadlines for each task. There's no standard pricing, although you can look through other HITs to see what similar tasks are going for. Amazon does set a minimum of $0.005 per HIT, and if you price a task too low, you may not get any takers or your task may sit for a lot longer. Research has shown most HITs are priced less than $0.10.

Many of the tasks currently on Amazon Turk are transcription or people trying to use crowdsourcing to write dirt-cheap content. But the service can be used to do data projects and other work that may not be scriptable or solvable without some amount of human interaction.

If you want to use Mechanical Turk, check out ProPublica's Guide to using Mechanical Turk.

Note that I use Fancy Hands for a mix of professional tasks and personal tasks. I see the $45 a month as a useful investment that enables me to spend my time on billable projects, rather than spending time on hold or doing research anybody could do. If you're using Mechanical Turk for longer work projects, though, you probably ought to have your company set up an Amazon account for payments.

Work Smarter

For admins in any size company, virtual assistants are a good way to hand off repetitive tasks to someone else and focusing on the work that matters. If you get good at handing off the time suck tasks that interrupt real work, you'll find work a bit more pleasant and get much more done.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. You can reach Zonker at jzb@zonker.net and follow him on Twitter.

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This article was originally published on December 12, 2011
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