Interview: Sal Soghoian on automating home projects, product demos with Steve Jobs, and the power of the Shortcuts app

Hi! For this week’s interview, I spoke with Sal Soghoian, former product manager of automation at Apple, about how he’s been using automation in his life, maintaining user privacy, and the power of the Shortcuts app on iOS.

If you wanna read more on Sal, I profiled him for Wired back in 2018, right before the debut of Shortcuts at WWDC. Talk to y’all next week!

So! Last we spoke, you’d been working with The Omni Group to integrate JavaScript into their apps, right? What have you been up to since then?

I’ve been so blessed to be very busy working with great organizations.

First, an Omni update:

With an upcoming update of OmniFocus, Omni will have completed the full Apple platform integration of Omni Automation, their extension of Core JavaScript, across their suite of productivity software: OmniGraffle, OmniPlan, OmniFocus, and OmniOutliner. Omni Automation scripts and plug-ins run the same regardless of which Apple device is hosting them (iPad, iPhone, or Mac), and can be shared and synced using iCloud, DropBox, or other popular virtual storage providers.

Working with Ken Case and the entire Omni Group team has been such a pleasure and so rewarding. Their customer-centric perspective and attention to detail is enabling the dream of Apple device-independent user automation to become a reality. Very exciting!

And in addition to working with Omni, I’m also continuing to work with a favorite Apple team in furthering the development of their macOS software for automating the setup of mobile devices. Based upon my earlier concepts involving Apple Configurator and Automator, they’ve taken those ideas to a whole new level, solving real-world challenges for their customers world-wide. Impressive!

We also produced and led two CMD-D automation conferences, and traveled (remember flying?) to present at MacSysAdmin, MacTECH, and Jamf Nation User Conference. I was scheduled to attend MacAD.UK 2020, but fortunately their postponement saved us from being stranded in London during the pandemic!

When we first started chatting, back in 2017, you said your goal has been to put the power of computers in the hands of users.  When so many different apps and services are fighting for our eyes, how can users best maintain that power and control?

For myself, I’ve always preferred automation tools that reside on my devices— tools that I retain the ability to control and manipulate, enabling me to keep my data locally on my home network. Because once your data leaves your “home” it loses legal protections, regardless of how trustworthy a service provider may be. Basically, the strategy is: if you can do it yourself, don’t send your data to someone to manage or manipulate for you. This strategy is a variation of one of my essential rules of life: whenever possible, avoid joining the food chain.

What tools do you think people can use right now to get through this tough time?

Besides Zoom?

I’m excited by the progress made in the development of the Shortcuts app. It has taken huge strides in advancing Automator's vision of creating workflows like easy “automation recipes” through the linking of generic component steps (actions) into workflows (recipes).

Shortcuts is succeeding in bringing user automation to the masses. Just listen to Rosemary Orchard and David Spark’s Automators podcast, and you’ll be presented with countless examples of how Shortcuts can solve everyday problems.

I believe Shortcuts is just beginning to reach its potential. Stay tuned!

Have you whipped up anything exciting in Shortcuts since it debuted a
few years ago?

I recently combined two of my favorite automation tools, Omni Automation and Shortcuts, in the creation of an OmniFocus plug-in for automating the addition of a new OmniFocus task with a prompted camera shot added as an attachment. It’s perfect for logging ideas and to-do’s on a home-improvement job site. The OmniFocus plug-in calls the Shortcuts workflow, and processes the results. That’s automation!

You and your team, back when you were at Apple, built the Automator program for OS X. How has user automation changed since then? Where do you think it goes from here?

The development and integration of Automator is a moment of Apple history. The result of a year-long effort by a small dedicated team of individuals from various groups, working on their own time, to develop a dynamic visual interface for a pipeline architecture that executes discrete components in sequence, while automatically translating and passing data between steps.

After many attempts to get Automator merged into Mac OS X, inclusion finally happened at the end of my sit-down demo with [Steve Jobs] (in a window-less room crowded with Apple execs) when he asked me to present “Automator” (his name for the tool) in two weeks at WWDC. That’s where “Otto” made his “iconic” debut on a huge banner in Moscone West.

As I mentioned before, the “workflow” concept of Automator lives on in Shortcuts and is expanding to include not only on-device procedures, but to also add the ability to link to network services and providers across the internet.

An important lesson learned with Automator is that the success of any automation tool requires the addition of granularity gained through integration with scripting languages, as well as widespread developer adoption of the tool’s APIs in their applications. Shortcuts has the potential to become a universal automation tool, especially as it integrates with scripting languages like Omni Automation. For those who appreciate the ability to customize their tools and workflows, it’s a great time to be on the Apple platform.

Finally, what’s your favorite thing you’ve seen online this week?

A video of the helical model of the solar system has gotten me thinking about what it would be like to fly through space like a planet swirling in the Sun’s vortex. Hey, you asked! I dream big. Cheers. — Sal