Friday, August 21, 2020

programming dbs for the people!

Paul Ford on how setting up little database systems is a very egalitarian form of programming:

 I've always loved that moment when someone shows you the thing they built for tracking books they've read or for their jewelry business. Amateur software is magical because you can see the seams and how people wrestled the computer. Like outsider art. So much of the tech industry today is about making things look professional, maybe convincing Apple to let you into the App Store to join the great undifferentiated mass of other apps. That's software. When people build their own Airtable to feed the neighborhood, that's culture.


I get asked a lot about learning to code. Sure, if you can. It's fun. But the real action, the crux of things, is there in the database. Grab a tiny, free database like SQLite. Import a few million rows of data. Make them searchable. It's one of the most soothing activities known to humankind, taking big piles of messy data and massaging them into the rigid structure required of a relational database. It's true power. Or mess around with Airtable or its no-code ilk. If you do it long enough and work with friends, you can do wonderful things. You can build data models that work well enough to feed people who need the help. That's real programming.

I think about something I heard about how in the 90s you could make a decent little business setting up little MS Access databases with custom Visual Basic front ends for small companies.

I've seen some of this with people using Google Docs and Google's survey tool - also I've seen some neat homebrew efforts for various Porchfests that often rival the results I've put into my sites for 'em, but took a lot less background knowledge.

I know I've gotten great utility out of a little Perl DB (later PHP, and overdue for a front end makeover) I made - just rows and columns and a customizable form, like a less-fancy, more functional Excel. I've made dozens of tables in it but mostly I use it record media I consume, coworkers I want to keep in touch with, and lately to assemble my monthly playlists.

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