OpenRefine (advanced GREL) could help build a pathway to programming. GREL introduces learners to variables, functions, arrays, regex...it seems a solid stepping stone (and OpenRefine supports Jython). In terms of automating the boring stuff, I don't think you can go wrong combining APIs and GREL. I found that after the pilot OpenRefine workshop last year, participants wanted to learn much more about extracting data via APIs (e.g. OADOI, Worldcat, Ulrichs, Elsevier/Scopus). The tricky/powerful part is using GREL to slice and dice extracted data. I ended up including more API-GREL examples in the advanced OpenRefine episode but had to remove reconciliation and extensions due to time constraints.