Careers: Interviews
Internationally Known Authority on the Mac and FileMaker

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Jesse Feiler.

Jesse is the author of a number of books on Mac OS X, FileMaker, the Web-based enterprise, the Y2K problem, and home offices. His most recent book is Sams Teach Yourself FileMaker 7 in 24 Hours.

A member of the FileMaker Solutions Alliance, he regularly consults on FileMaker and develops FileMaker solutions for small business, non-profits, art, retail point-of-sale, publishing, marketing, and other markets. He has specialized in “rehabs”—updates to existing FileMaker solutions including FileMaker 7 conversions.

He has worked as a developer and manager for companies such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (monetary policy and bank supervision), Prodigy (early Web browser), Apple (information systems), New York State Department of Health (rabies and lead poisoning), The Johnson Company (office management), and Young & Rubicam (media planning and new product development).

He is Software Director of Philmont Software Mill (www.philmontmill.com).

Discussion:

Q: Jesse, we appreciate you taking the time to do this interview—thank you.

A: My pleasure.

Q: What led you into this field?

A: First of all, we need to define what “this field” is. I always say that everything I do relates to understanding complexity and then organizing it into a coherent form. That applies to writing a book about technology as well as to consulting. So I consider myself an organizer and synthesizer. What led me into this field was curiosity and an innate desire to find the underlying patterns in complexity.

Q: Please share a few of your most surprising or amazing experiences?

A: To me it’s rather surprising that there are so few real surprises in the technology arena. There are major advances, but very rarely do we see something that is truly unexpected. I can remember when I was first starting out being introduced to database technology on mainframes as well as learning about how operating systems worked. It’s only taken two decades, but we now have that power on the desktop. And from here, the sky’s the limit.

Q: Do you have any humorous stories to share?

A: As a consultant, I was struck by the fact that every new project I took on started with a very serious lecture by the client to the effect that I had never worked on a project like this. The legal/media/education/whatever world was unique, I would be told. Nothing approached its idiosyncracies or complexities. It took me a while to learn just to nod and agree quietly. The fact is that every project has a set of unique issues—but while they may be unique (and they often are not), the mere fact of unique issues is not in and of itself unique. That is why so many small businesses turn to consultants to develop solutions. So we agree that no one in the history of the world has ever had the issues that they are confronting, and then take our experience to solve those issues.

Q: Tell us more about “Geek Cruises’ Mac Mania Cruises” to Alaska and the Caribbean.

A: Neil Bauman, at Geek Cruises, has developed a great idea: cruises that incorporate high-end training. The third Mac Mania cruise will be to the Caribbean this fall (www.geekcruises.com). There are the standard ports of call, but during the days at sea there will be seminars led by a variety of people. I’ll be doing two sessions on FileMaker 7, and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Q: You were the first author of a technical book to be published in both paper and e-book format. Any comments?

A: In the late 1990s, e-books seemed a wonderful opportunity for readers and publishers. A variety of hand-held devices were developed that were very easy to use and to read. In addition, PDF (and other) files for personal computers and a variety of formats for PDAs were developed. Publishers were very leery of electronic versions—largely because of copyright issues and the possibility of pirated versions. I convinced the publisher of “Finding and Fixing Your Y2K Problem” that we should experiment with it—if ever there were a book that had a limited shelf life, that was it. I typeset the book for the paper edition, and I later did the transformation to the Rocket Ebook. It was a great experience, and it was good to see how the technology could evolve. For now, e-books seem to be on hold, but I think they’ll be back. My prediction is that e-books are going to have a major role eventually in newspapers and magazines. People often remark that they like the physical sensation of reading a good book, but I don’t know too many people who like the physical sensation of reading a newspaper—folding the pages, getting ink on your hands, and so forth. And then there’s the issue of taking all those magazines and newspapers to the recycling center! People save books, but they don’t often save newspapers and magazines. Here’s a technology that is mature and just waiting for the right circumstances to reemerge.

Q: Share your work with the Virtual Training Company (www.vtc.com) which publishes your 8-hour video training courses on FileMaker 7, Mac OS X, and AppleScript Studio.

A: VTC produces training videos that provide voice-over narration to accompany onscreen videos and demonstrations. I’ve done three for them now. I enjoy working with the people at VTC, and I’ve settled into a convenient way of creating the videos. Often, they are accompaniments to books that I’ve done. I find that organizing the information for a book helps me get a handle on it, but then when I look at the information from the standpoint of a video, I need to reorganize it. First of all, as in any visual medium, demonstrations and visuals are primary. Also, I’ve found that the examples I use for a book generally need to be modified or even replaced for the video. On the video, I can use color and more detail than I can in the illustrations for a book. All in all, it’s a great opportunity to be able to work both on the printed page and on video.

Q: Give us five tips each on FileMaker and Mac OS.

Aa: 1)  With FileMaker 7, everyone is a beginner. The new database paradigm is exciting and powerful.
2)  Most of the challenge of FileMaker 7 is using the new features--removing code that is no longer necessary and not implementing work-around that no longer are required.
3)  Non-equi-join relationships are your friends. No longer do you have to match on a key (such as customer ID). You can now match on a key as well as on a relationship that is not equality: all invoices less than this one, for example.
4)  Use self-joins and non-equi-join relationships to implement edits of data. Instead of testing to see if a condition applies, define a relationship and simply count how many (if any) records fall into that condition. Usually you want 0 or 1.
5)  Explore the new unified security model. Use it to implement field-level security.

Ab: 1) (This applies to all operating systems.) If you’re not ready to handle a total crash of your hard disk, get ready today. Start doing regular backups using Backup, iSync, or a third-party product such as Retrospect. (You can also do manual backups by burning files to CDs or DVDs or copying them to removable media.)
2) If you’re going to need to transfer files to another computer or another person, or if you’re going to need to use another computer during a vacation or other trip, make sure you do a test run before it’s critical.
3) Check out Disk Utility. If you’ve used Mac OS X for a while, you’ll find significant changes and improvements.
4) For apparently random misbehavior, use Repair Permissions in Disk Utility.
5) If you’ve been saving copies of files, have a housecleaning session. Burn them all to CDs or DVDs and rescue some disk space.

Q: What five tips can you share from your most recent book, Sams Teach Yourself FileMaker 7 in 24 Hours?

A: 1) Use script parameters: you’ll reduce the number of scripts in your solution dramatically.
2) Use non-equi-joins. By defining relationships in this way, you’ll have information at your fingertips without having to execute Find steps during your solution.
3) Group related tables together in a single database file.
4) For erratic updating behavior in scripts, check that you’ve used the Commit script step where necessary.
5) Double-click relationship icons in the Define Relationships dialog to allow creation/deletion of records based on a relationship.

Q: What are the ten most compelling issues facing technology professionals today and in the future? How can they be resolved?

A: 1) Understanding users’ needs. As we have the ability to customize solutions more and more, it’s critical to approach technology from the user’s point of view.
2)  Keeping pace with technology--not bleeding edge, not lagging behind. Knowing where to position yourself with regard to technology changes requires knowing what’s going on and what you and your users need.
3)  Security. I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s not going away in this age of terrorism and identity theft.
4)  The drag of the installed base. We have decades-old software and system designs in place. Often users want to move forward incrementally--how do you do this without a drastic rewrite of everything all at once?
5)  Synchronization of data across networks and different types of devices. Fortunately, this area has been pretty much codified on the mainframe side, and we can learn from their best practices.
6)  Choosing where to process and store data. Now that we’ve got choices ranging from Internet to mainframes to iPods (not to mention personal computers), the choices and combinations are almost infinite. The solution must hinge around the users’ needs, their capabilities, and the resources available.
7)  It is less and less common to build a system from scratch. We’re modifying systems, doing “rehabs,” and working with legacy systems. Integrating new ideas and new architectures in this environment is a challenge, since the developer needs to understand both the old and new technologies.
8)  Helping users to adapt to new technologies and leave behind their old ways of working that are often no longer needed.
9)  Integrating components using technologies such as Web Services, the Web in general, Java, and the various Microsoft offerings. We think we’ve got a good set of connectivity tools, but we still have a few years to go before we can rely on their being able to work consistently with all of the major products.
10)  Understanding users’ needs. Yes, this is the same as the first item. It’s the beginning and end of challenges for developers. As a group, we’re pretty good at understanding technology, but people and their needs are much more complex (and infinitely more interesting).

Q: List the 10 best resources for technology and business professionals.

A: 1)  The New York Times (Business and Circuits sections particularly).
2)  CNet (news.com).
3)  The Design of Everyday Things (Donald A. Norman)
4)  Original documentation (RFCs for standards, for example)
5)  Trade associations for the areas in which you work. They’re a unique resource for seeing what’s up and coming on the business side. (ISBNs are changing from 10 to 13 digits. UPCs in the US are changing. These are business decisions that will affect technology.)
6)  Gripe and feedback sessions at conferences. See what irks people. Often there are big irks arising from issues that can easily be solved on the technology side.
7)  LA Times (unbeatable for media/film issues)
8)  One international news site--pick one, preferably from a country you know. You’ll find a vastly different perspective on all news, including technology.
9)  Developer support groups for products you’re interested in. For FileMaker, FileMaker Solutions Alliance (available through filemaker.com) is essential.
10)  (have to say it, my books if I’ve written on the topic)

Q: What future books can we expect from you?

A: There’s a very exciting book in the works. Unfortunately, until it gets just a little bit further along in the development cycle, we can’t talk about it. I can say that it will be something totally different and very exciting.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?

A: 1) Wireless, wireless, wireless. Keyboards, Internet, LANs, WiFi. Wireless technology doesn’t just get rid of the cables: it can let us totally redesign and recreate the places in which we use computers as well as the shapes of computers themselves.

2)  Security. Corporate users with IT support staffs have mostly got this licked, but individuals, home users, and small businesses are scandalously vulnerable to everything from viruses and trojan horses to accidental or malicious damage to their data from within. This is a global problem, and it’s not totally the fault of the users. Vendors have not treated security with the respect it deserves. Routers and other network equipment (not to mention computers) should be shipped with security turned on—most often, it is shipped with no security enabled to make the “up-and-running” experience as easy as possible.

3)  More and more customization for small business. For core functionality--what distinguishes one company from another--more and more FileMaker solutions as opposed to generic, shrink-wrapped solutions.

4)  Synchronization. Gradually a move away from desktop supremacy and server supremacy. My data will be my data wherever I store it, and all of my appliances and computers will be able to synchronize and retrieve the data.

5)  Automation of automation. Just as we no longer set dip switches on modems for baud rates, more and more configuration will be automatic.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: Desktop and laptop Macintosh computers on a wireless network.

Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

A: Q1: As a consultant, how do you charge?
A1: This is actually one of the most frequently asked questions, and my answer has changed in the last few years. For development work, clients and I are usually happiest working on a project basis, not an hourly basis. It gives everyone a better idea of the costs that are coming up. The problem, though, is how to handle changes in the project as it goes along. What I now do is to quote a range. After we get into the project and have the first draft of the software, I can refine the range pretty accurately. Everyone seems to like this. (If you do this, be sure to honestly pick a range. If you’re always coming in at the maximum value, you’re not doing it right.)

Q2: FileMaker 7 has been a major change. When is the next one due?
A2: There will be updates to FileMaker 7 both to correct issues, to account for new hardware, and to implement new functionality. But the basic paradigm of FileMaker 7 is likely to stay around for a very long time. Arguably, it is either the biggest change since the first FileMaker or since FileMaker 3, which introduced relational features. I’d give this architecture a good ten years before a new paradigm appears, and perhaps double that before we go through a shift as big as the transition to FileMaker 7.

Q3: If FileMaker 7 is so different, is it worth converting from earlier versions? Why not start over?
A3: FileMaker 7 is mightily different, but it’s similar in providing FileMaker’s unique combination of power and development simplicity. The graphical user interface (and the way in which you customize it) are little changed. The automatic conversion process often converts existing solutions will minimal fuss.

Q4: You say “often.” What sorts of problems arise? What doesn’t convert easily?
A4: It’s not always the big FileMaker solutions that have conversion problems. Some of the issues that I’ve noticed arise from solutions that themselves have bugs or that use complex file structures (that is, files that are all over a network, rather than in a single folder). Other things to watch out for are the new Commit script step (which you may have to add to get proper updating).

Q5: Automatic conversion is designed to make pre-FileMaker 7 solutions work. It cannot add new features. Are there any new features you should consider manually adding?
A5: First, remember that once the solution is converted, you can do this on an ongoing basis as you make other changes. One thing I do is to adopt script parameters as soon as possible. This generally means that one script can do the work of many (in one case more than 20). That’s the biggest bang-for-the-buck tip that I know of.

Q: Do you have any more comments to add?

A: There’s a free 30-day trial of FileMaker at filemaker.com. Try it!

Q: Jesse, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: My pleasure.

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