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New Software Makes Building Your Own Database Easier – Should YOU try it?

Every one needs to manage information of some sort. When you outgrow your shoe box full of note cards, you need to think about a database program. If your needs are simple you may be able to use a low-end off-the shelf package such as Quicken or Quick Books for accounting, ACT! for contact management and Microsoft Works (Windows) or My Mailing List Pro (Mac) for simple mailing list management. There are packages in the $2,000 range tailored to the needs of specific professions. That sounds like a lot of money but if you have someone construct a custom database for you, it will probably cost more for fewer features. Be careful of false economy. If your needs are not really met by an off-the-shelf package, you may curse it every time you use it or end up not using it. Usually the time saved by using a good database instead of doing it manually can quickly pay for the database whether off-the-shelf or custom.

What about constructing your own database? Access 7 (Windows 95) and FilemakerPro 3 (Mac) bring relational database setup and maintenance within the capabilities of a determined novice. Here are some tips for deciding whether you want to walk this path and to help you along the way.

Whether you set up your database yourself or ultimately decide to have someone else do it, you need to be very specific about what you want before you get started. “Manage my inventory” or “keep track of students” is not good enough. Think about all the information you want out of it. For a school this might be: 1) mailing labels grouped by potential students, currents students, faculty, past students of a particular class, donors etc.; 2) course lists and class requirements; 3) student lists for each current course; 4) each student’s record of courses taken and grade received; 5) whether the student has paid for their class yet; and so forth.

Should you set it up yourself or have someone else do it?

Advantages of doing it yourself:
1. Less expensive
2. You understand the basic structure, which makes changes easier
3. You control the look and feel of the interface, you don’t have communicate your desires to someone else
4. Your programmer hasn’t left town when you need a change

Disadvantages:
1. Time consuming
2. You have to learn database programming and pay attention to the details
3. You don’t have the benefit of an outside viewpoint
4. You don’t have the benefit of experience with other databases

A reasonable compromise is for you have someone set up the basic structure of the database and then teach you how to make changes.

Allow enough time. It is easy to underestimate the time it takes to build a seemingly simple database. Assume 2 hours for each simple table, form and report (one of each = 6 hours). This sounds like a lot, but by the time you get them tied together and working properly you’ll wonder where the time went. The time consumed can rapidly multiply once you start adding subforms and automation. Have patience with yourself and your employees. No one picks this up as fast as they do word processing or spreadsheet work. But once you have invested the time, you should have a system which saves you time and helps provide up-to-date accurate analyses of your data.

Some tips gleaned from the mistakes I’ve seen others make:

  1. Keep it simple until you know it’s working. Then you can start adding automation.
  2. Test it with known data to be sure numbers are coming out correctly. Too many people assume that it is correct just because it is in print.
  3. Don’t make too many changes at once.
  4. Use lookups and picklists to help avoid typos and duplication.
  5. Don’t work on a live system. Most of the time you need to keep your data up to date during the time you are making changes. This is especially true in a multiuser system. When trying out an idea, copy the database and work with the copy until you get it right. Then go back and make changes to the original.

I have heard the “programmer left town” song too many times. I strongly recommend you take an active part in creating your database if you choose the custom database path. Just give us a call (206-523-0872), we’ll be glad to help with both programming and training.

copyright 1996 Karen Seymour

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