As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in the back of the room of the United Kingdom’s National Access User Group’s Seminar. I was invited over to give the keynote address of the conference, along with two technical talks (“Scenario-based Design” and “Service Oriented Access”). At this point, I’ve already given my keynote speech and one of my talks (my second presentation is scheduled for after lunch). To say that I was pleased to be invited is an understatement. It would also be an understatement to say that everyone has been unbelievably friendly. I managed to get my schedule mixed up at the start of the day, for instance, and gave my second technical talk first, but everyone seemed to roll with the change. The conference organizers (Rob Gordon and Margaret Chamberlain) were unfailingly supportive. If the rest of the attendees end up reading this in a few months: Thanks for a great time!
The only downside to the conference: At the start of the day, Rob got up and said, “We wanted to get the most well-known person in the Access community for our keynote speaker...” I was really pleased. That is, until I learned that last year they had Ken Getz as their keynote speaker. So I gather that the group is working its way down the list and I was, at best, the “second most well known person.” I’d like to argue with them but I have to admit that if I could get Ken to speak at my conference, I’d get him first, too.
Since the conference’s theme is “Our Access,” for the keynote I just asked people how they got started in Access. I heard a number of different stories. As we each told our different stories, it became obvious how much we had in common: There are, I think, about a half dozen different “How I got started in Access” stories (I heard my own “How I got started” story from a woman in the third row on the left). There was the engineer/accountant who had to get an application built; a professional developer in some language with a limited future (Pascal, usually) who needed to build a database application; the person with no programming background who had to take over an application someone else had built; the person looking for a change of career who figured that software development was a good choice, with Access being the tool to use.
Our careers shared experiences also. Many of us have what I call “charity clients,” for instance. These are the clients who hire us to do stuff that we don’t really know how to do. They don’t pay much (often nothing) but they give us the chance to work on developing the Access skills we need. Often they really are charities (I think that we could start a separate, worldwide chapter just for Access programmers whose first major client was a church).
We also had a shared body of Access applications that we’d built seven or eight or 10 years ago that were still running and still being useful, though not necessarily for the original users. Those members who were new to Access were depressed to discover that they’d have to be supporting their current applications for many years.
We shared a common understanding of Access as a product. For instance, we all agreed that the one member who started on Access 95 and stuck with Access, despite that experience, was the hero of the conference.
We also talked about why, after all these years and all the different development tools available to us, we continue to build applications with Access. I don’t think that, among all the reasons that came up, we agreed on any. However, I can say why I keep coming back to Access.
As my book on Visual Basic 6 attests and my upcoming book on ASP.NET 2.0 testifies, I don’t work only in Access. I play the field. In fact, for all of 2003 and the start of 2004, I didn’t really touch Access. But toward the middle of 2004 I got a major Access consulting contract. Coming back to Access after being away for so long highlighted to me the two reasons that I keep working with Access. What’s important about my insight, I think, is that no one (not even the people at Microsoft) realizes what Access means to the people who use it on a regular basis.
The first reason I like Access is that I’m so productive in the environment. Normally, when someone brings me in to work with them, we’re all working at the bleeding edge of technology. This involves a certain amount of pain and agony on everyone’s part. It sometimes feels like I spend more time setting up and configuring systems in order to get started on the project than I do actually working on the project. But, coming back to Access for the project in 2004, I just sat down and started creating functionality. I was delivering at least three or four forms every week. The change was so obvious that my wife commented on it: “You just came home from the design session and started working.” It was great. And there’s no other tool that I can use to deliver so much in so little time. I’m back working in ASP.NET right now (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I look a little wistfully at that last Access app. The second reason I like Access is because it’s fun:
I can build real applications, working closely with the actual end users, and deliver something genuinely useful to them in a relatively short period of time—usually months. While there are an infinite number of applications that shouldn’t be built with Access, there are an equally infinite number that work just fine as Access applications. And the chief characteristic of these applications is that they’re delivered to a small group of people I can get to know personally. More importantly, the application that I deliver is regarded by them as actually useful and makes a real difference in their lives.
And what could be better than that?