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How does one automate that which cannot be automated?
We are in an information age. An age where someone can monitor the security of their home and unlock their care from a mobile device; start streaming a movie at home, move to an iPad, and finish on a plane; and even blend, cleanse, and predict data with little or no data science knowledge. And yet many, if not all of us, at some point have tried to gain access to data within our own organizations only to be met with the solution of “we can email you an Excel file”. Really?!? I can put money into my Starbucks account via my phone, and have Starbucks scan and recognize the payment, deduct the cost from my account and give me my bonus stars for the transaction, but the only solution you have to give me data is to email it to me? Now is a good time to tell you something important about myself – I’m lazy. I loathe manual, tedious, repetitive tasks. I often joke with my coworkers that I’m going to automate everything I do so I can sit and watch YouTube all day. In fact, were I to successfully automate myself out of a job I would consider that the single greatest accomplishment of my career. As you can probably imagine, I was not willing to manually download and process Excel files each week. Fortunately, I come from a software development background and was able to write code to extract attachments from Outlook emails and baked that into an SSIS package that ran weekly.
Outlook Input toolFast forward a couple of years to Inspire 2017. I was having breakfast before the opening keynote and I heard an Alteryx employee talking about using Alteryx to blend data from a file she receives from another department. I had a hunch and asked her how she gets those files. I stifled a literal “LOL” moment when she said she receives them via email. I told her I had some code that might help her get to a fully automated solution. Later in the conference I attended a session on using the Alteryx API and SDK. I paid particularly close attention to the SDK portion because at the time I had no idea creating custom tools was even an option. I know this is going to sound lame and cliché, but at that moment I was truly inspired to jump into code and build my own custom input tool to pull attachments out of Outlook emails. I know, I know, too corny. Moving on. As a fantastic conference was coming to a close I just happened to spot one of the engineers, @JPKa, who hosted the session on using the API and SDK at the closing reception. I told him my idea and he pointed me in the right direction to get started. Two weeks of personal time later I had a solid version 1 of the tool and I shared it with my friends at Alteryx.
Working with the SDK
Outlook Input Tool ConfigurationEverything I needed to get started was already installed with Alteryx Designer. I used a combination of reading through and interpreting the sample and the getting started documentation. Honestly, my first impression was confusion. The sample project involves using an XML file containing Alteryx tool XML config information as an input to set the tool XML config information. When it came to interpreting the code to understand how it was linking the xml config information to the input data I was often confused as to whether the xml components in question were part of the Alteryx configuration or the input tool that was providing the configuration. Simply put, it was setting configuration from configuration. If anyone from Alteryx Product Management is reading this, a better sample might be to pull dummy customer data from a .csv file and send it to an output stream.
My biggest obstacle was interpreting the sample code - figuring out how to separate the xml config as input from the xml config that was reading the input. It makes perfect sense now, but when I was trying to understand the custom tool architecture and input file interpretation simultaneously for the first time I had some trouble.
Once I had a working tool I went back and forth with the folks at Alteryx and there were some limitations there with getting them the install and sharing attachments. I discovered I could wrap the install into a yxzp file and include instructions and a help file. JP was very helpful with identifying some of the nuances of working with the SDK and offered some suggestions on improving the tool. I needed to incorporate the "UpdateOnly" parameter because the C# code was executing every time a new tool was added to the canvas. I didn't know that the Alteryx Engine had a special feature where it runs the workflow (with no actual records other than metadata) every time a new tool is added.
He also suggested I add some date filtering capability to the tool, allowing people to avoid downloading their entire inbox if they select “Inbox”. For this I added a configuration element for the user to input a query string and included a link to the documentation to build the query.
Using the Outlook Input Tool
You may be tempted to point this sucker to your Inbox right out of the gate, and I don't know what your Inbox looks like, but if it looks anything like some of our testers, I'd advise against that. Play with your drafts folder or deleted items first.
You may find copying the search syntax from Outlook into the Query String helpful:
copy the query string from outlook
As for me, this is how I've been using the tool. In this example I filter out a specific Excel file and send it through a Dynamic Input tool to see the results. I'll leave it up to you to discover new and interesting ways to consume the files that you no longer have to manually fish out of your inboxes.
But wait, there’s more! Act now and as a bonus you get the added message stream allowing you to perform any number of analytics on your email messages. And if that isn’t enough, join the two streams together on Message ID for maximum analytical potential!!
What's included in the package
You'll find an Alteryx *.yxzp file attached to this post. When you open it in Alteryx Designer, you will see installation instructions:
The workflow is a single RunCommand tool that will install the Outlook Input tool. You can find my source code on Git Hub.
I hope you find the Outlook Input tool useful. This has been a fun and exciting project and I can't wait to see what creative ways the community finds to use this tool. Use the comments below to let me know your experience working with the tool.