Getting to FileMaker

I had just graduated from college. A friend and I were running a recruiting startup out of our living room. We had a good working relationship and an effective division of labor: he handled sales and most of marketing so the company would have money. I tackled our backend systems so we could deliver on what he sold. There was a variety of data we had to track: relationships with customers, relationships with universities, relationships with and statuses of applicants, etc., and it was up to me to figure out how to make it all work.

There was, however, one small problem: I had no formal background in technology, software, or information systems management. I had a music degree. But when you’re working in a two-person startup, “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. The solution: “I’ll figure it out.”

We settled on using the Airtable platform. Airtable is about as basic a relational database platform as can be found: it looks like a spreadsheet but functions like a database. It allowed us to create robust (enough) relational databases for our needs. With a pre-built UI, cross-platform support, and the paucity of prerequisite knowledge about primary and foreign keys, ERDs, join tables, SQL or any other coding language—even knowing what the word schema means—it fit the bill, enabling me to put something together quickly without embarking on a lengthy expedition up a steep learning curve. 

A few years later I found myself at another growing company in desperate need of a systems overhaul. Once again, the answer was a relational database. But this time I knew what I was doing. I had been around the block a few times. So I thought. I was soon to discover that this block I had been around was a very small one.

FileMaker was the platform I hoped existed but wasn’t sure did.

Airtable is great for what it is and for what it claims to be, but proved inadequate for this new set of needs. We needed a solution not for a company of two people sitting in their living room, but for a team of nearly twenty people out in the field, some of whom were decently computer-literate, and several of whom struggled with anything that, to quote Captain America, “seems to run on some form of electricity.” We needed a system that provided six key features: 1) the ability to organize and relate our data, 2) the ability to control access to data on a per-user basis, 3) the ability to embed business logic within the system rather than in the brains of individual users, 4) the ability to automate workflows, 5) the ability to present only relevant data to the user in an easily-digestible format for each type of record, and 6) the ability to run reports on that data. 

Airtable was able to meet only the first of those requirements.

Despite how much I may personally enjoy the discovery process, I do not advocate reinventing the wheel, and so I began looking for a piece of existing software that could meet our needs. However, like many businesses, that piece of software did not exist, leaving me with two options: build a custom solution myself, or let the company flounder in its current disorganization. Realizing the later was not a viable option, I committed to building something myself. But I had never built a piece of software before. I didn’t know there was a difference between Java and JavaScript, how to pronounce “SQL”, and had never even heard the phrase relational database. I didn’t know what SQL or HTML stood for, and had never heard of CSS. (I did, however, know how to use the <body> and <p> tags in HTML, though that didn’t help much.)

That’s when I found FileMaker.

…I had actually found an ocean.

FileMaker was the platform I hoped existed but wasn’t sure did. Here, in FileMaker, I found a platform that would enable and equip me—someone with zero coding experience—to develop a custom app that solved our unique business problems, have it work on a variety of operating systems, and allow me to deploy it to a team of people without any prerequisite knowledge of setting up a server.

FileMaker transformed how we work. The process of invoicing clients, for example, used to take four full days each month. It now takes fifteen minutes. Processing payroll used to take one to two days every two weeks. It now takes five minutes. Putting together a list of our current clients used to take an hour. It now takes ten seconds. Calculating our net revenue over a given time period used to take hours. FileMaker gives us that report in less than thirty seconds. The inefficiency of some of our previous processes meant that our team oftentimes didn’t even record certain types of data. FileMaker not only provides us easy access to data, but has allowed us access to data we previously weren’t even collecting. It has freed up our time, allowing us to better serve our customers and to expand the number of services we offer.

Discovering FileMaker was like discovering a kiddy pool—easily navigable with water no higher than my knees—only to realize later that I had actually found an ocean. The barriers to entry were low. The learning curve to get an initial workable solution up and running was minimal. I didn’t drown. In fact, even after deploying my first solution, I still thought I was in the kiddy pool. But the longer I was in the FileMaker world, the more I realized what was in my hands. After about a year of self-taught development, I attended my first FileMaker DevCon. 

A game changer. 

It was here that I discovered businesses who weren’t just getting their feet wet with FileMaker. They were scuba diving. The power and potential of FileMaker were far broader and significantly deeper than I ever realized. I had seen FileMaker as a fun set of tinker toys. This was no set of tinker toys. This was real, powerful stuff. 

And that, I think, is the beauty of FileMaker. It doesn’t require you to know how to swim to get started. You can make something meaningful and useful, even as a novice. But when you’re ready to go deeper, to do more, to expand your toolkit, FileMaker is there to deliver. There are great depths out there, and FileMaker allows you to explore them along the way—without being stuck with an unworkable solution in the meantime.

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A Solution That Delights

For over two decades, Nations Home Warranty has provided residential warranties for unexpected home appliance repairs to home buyers and sellers. In 2016, Nations launched a new marketing strategy offering home warranty contracts to listing agents at no cost, positioning Nations to continue the coverage with the new homeowner when the house sells.

When a search that normally takes 10 minutes is turned into a click of a button, the time it saves is worth its weight in gold.

The Problem

To effect their strategy, Nations receives daily emails from the North Texas Real Estate Information System (NTREIS) containing listings across 48,000 square miles, over 6,000 real estate offices, and 30,000 Multiple Listing Subscribers (MLS) in North Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan Area.

In the beginning, this immense amount of continual information had to be manually, painfully processed. Every listing in every email was checked against Nations’s database to determine if the listing was in the database, and if it wasn’t, each new listing was added manually, requiring the entry of 19 individual, critical datapoints.

The Solution

Veronica Anzaldua, Nations’s database manager, needed help to alleviate this agonizing process. For each email, four things had to be done: 1) extract relevant data from the email, 2) identify data to be updated, 3) update the existing listings in the database, and 4) create new records when needed.

Using PHP and FileMaker, Harmonic Software Production Studios created a tool to sift incoming emails, even when those emails contain more than one listing.

The Future

Today, the automated handling of inbound NTREIS emails has enabled Nations to expand their free warranty program for listing agents. What was once an extremely labor-intensive, multi-hour undertaking is now effectively effortless. 

Veronica said it best: “When a search that normally takes 10 minutes is turned into a click of a button, the time it saves is worth its weight in gold.”

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Lynette’s Magic Shake Machine

Creativity is not an ever-flowing river of ideas and inspiration. As an undergraduate art student at Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas, Lynette Sykora, 22, began each painting assignment with an empty canvas devoid of color, texture and a story to tell. When challenged to create a collection of four, relatively large oil paintings, however, she was confident that her creativity would not be stifled by artist’s block — not this time.

Synesthesia: Cross-wired for Creativity

Why the creative confidence? In 2017, Lynette had been diagnosed with synesthesia, a neurological condition that affects approximately 13 million Americans. When stimulated by sound, her sensory “hearing” pathway leads to the involuntary stimulation of her sensory “vision” pathway. Lynette hears music and simultaneously sees the sound as colors and texture.

Priming the Pump with Music and Images

It takes time to prime the pump of creativity and stimulate the sensory pathways of a synesthete. It takes the random combination of music and images. 

“My father heads a software production studio in Dallas,” Lynette explains. “I told him what I needed and he asked a few questions.” Using FileMaker Pro 17, the Magic Shake Machine was ready in only a day. More importantly, it worked.

Music, Images and Aspect Ratios

The Magic Shake Machine selects random and uneditable recipes from libraries of music, images and aspect ratios.  Each unique combination would invade Lynette’s sensory pathways. The inspirational recipe for Lynette’s “Balloon Industry” included Chopin’s “Nocturne in E- flat Major, OP. 9 NO.2”, images of a cliff, whales and balloons, and a 1 x 6 aspect ratio. The rest was magic.

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Dallas to Denver on a Gallon of Gas

On May 14, 2018, over 200 students and 81 student-built vehicles competed in the 30th annual SuperMileage Challenge sponsored by the Minnesota Technology and Engineering Educators Association (MTEEA).  

The Challenge

A student-built vehicle, powered by a 2.4 horsepower Briggs-Stratton lawnmower engine, must travel a total of 36 miles using the least fuel possible.  

The Rules

Each team receives a bottle of fuel for six, two-lap runs, around a three-mile track. The weight of the fuel is logged by car number prior to each run, and again at the end of each run. To avoid disqualification, the average speed for each run must be between 15 and 25 MPH. The teams in each of six classes with the best 12-lap average mileage are declared 2018 SuperMileage winners. 

The Technology

For its first five years, the SuperMileage Challenge was managed on clipboards with paper and pencils. Technology was first introduced in 1993 when FileMaker 2.1 made it easier to capture critical fueling and timing data for the individual cars. Upgraded with the release of FileMaker 5, the tool has performed flawlessly for two decades.

In January 2018, MTEEA made their own commitment to technology, updating their software to take full advantage of the modern technologies, such as iPads, mobile phones, and web support to capture trackside data from officials during the competition.

The Leaderboard

Using FileMaker’s native JSON support, the SuperMileage Challenge app pushed live data from the event to an online leaderboard where anxious participants and families could see the near real-time status of their vehicle. The best single lap average on the 2018 leaderboard: 675.6 MPG — the distance from Dallas to the Mile High City.

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