Rely on your Software Vendor to Provide all the Code and Eliminate your own Programming
Earlier this year our spring cleaning was a little different than in past years. Instead of trying to find things that I can finally let go of, I decided to search and rescue some of my historic personal computer items I have used and accumulated over the years. For several years now I have been toying with the idea of opening a local small computer and software museum but since my collection is so incomplete and I didn’t see myself searching for and curating additional items, I decided I had enough to fill a room in our house or at least display some of these items in my office.
I was thrilled to find original copies of WordStar and VisiCalc (yes, there was life before Excel!), my very first business personal computer, the Osborne 1, the first portable PC, with its 5” screen and CP/M operating system, the one I used for all my early document and spreadsheet work, a few other early PCs and of course, some very old storage devices, particularly the Seagate ST-506 (the world’s first 5.25”, full height drive for PC’s) with its (at the time) impressive 5 MB (not GB!) storage capacity, just about enough to store a single photograph you take with your smart phone.
Unfortunately, I was not able to find a certain software package for the early IBM PC. If I recall correctly, its name was Magic PC, by Magic Software. It was an application development software, used to build database applications without having to do any programming work. In contrast, developing similar applications with early databases such as dBase III required learning to code and particularly the dBase language. With dBase loaded and not having the basic database administration and programming skills, all you could do was stare at a single dot at the bottom left of the screen – not a very useful or exciting activity.
Magic PC is a good example of an application that was designed for average business users, people who had a clear idea of what they needed and the results they expected from the application.
Picking from an array of menu items and options, and using the already built-in logic and formulas, one could build sophisticated applications, like basic accounting applications, inventory management programs, or any type of business application that relied on a database. The best part was that you could do that without writing a single line of code, a unique feature for a mid-80’s software program.
I particularly appreciated this because, like many business users, many of whom have dabbled in programming, most of us are not programmers, nor do we care to become programmers. We want specific results and search for applications that can deliver these results. Those who must rely on programming (even simple work such as writing VBA code in Excel) quickly realize that their precious time is better spent on their actual job activities and not on developing custom code for their business needs. Of course, they can rely on IT to do the work, but that usually proves to be a lengthy endeavor requiring approvals, testing, changes, more testing, etc. Or perhaps the company’s policy is to hire external consultants to do the work, which frequently results in unexpected project scope changes, budget overruns and unpredictable results.
Having such tools, like Magic PC in its time, can be very beneficial to business users and the companies that employ them. This is especially important in areas like finance where there is reliance on data (past, present and future/forecasted) used in mission critical applications. There is simply too much risk in letting employees do any programming work. Such in-house programming often results in undetected material errors, lack of internal control, and multiple versions of the same program (e.g., multiple versions of home-brewed Excel workbooks with formulas, functions, VBA code and links, independently maintained and used by two or more people).
Magic PC is no longer a viable solution, and in my case has also magically vanished, forever gone from my little collection. However, there are applications, that in the spirit of Magic PC deliver the same basic concepts to average business users, many of whom are employed by SMBs (Small and Medium size Business).
FP&A (Finance, Planning and Analysis) software is one good example where users are discouraged from programming within the application. This is where intelligent planning is far more desirable than engaging in risky and unpredictable endeavors of creating large budgets or financial models using either spreadsheets or FP&A software solutions that rely on user provided programming of formulas, links and other code necessary to create the desired output. See my past blogs, entitled Why Tradition May be Dangerous – Part 1 and Part 2.
I have also discussed in this blog the many pitfalls of allowing users to program within their own FP&A applications (or just use spreadsheets) and why too much freedom in modeling is often counterproductive.
I am going to miss my old Magic PC package in its 3-ring binder and 5.25” floppy disk and not having it proudly displayed on a shelf alongside VisiCalc and WordStar. Nonetheless, I am glad to have realized that in using any computer software application my time is far better spent clicking and not coding.
Alan Hart, MBA, is Principal Consultant at Pacific Shine Group in Portland, Oregon, with responsibility for client business development and hands-on client project implementations. Prior to starting Pacific Shine Group, he worked in various executive accounting and finance positions with technology and growth companies. Notable is his 18 years in the hi-tech manufacturing industry where he served as Controller, Vice President of Finance and CFO of several privately as well as publically held companies in the Hi-Tech industry, such as Hybrid Arts, Inc., Hamilton Bay Associates and Syncronys Software. In his role in management consulting, Alan has worked in diverse industries and with a variety of clients, including fortune 1000 companies such as Boeing, Delta Airlines, Intel, Wyndham Worldwide and others, as well as many mid-market organizations such as Guitar Center, Ducommun AeroStructures, Cypress Semiconductor, TriQuint Semiconductor and others.
Combining his skills and experience in engineering with deep understanding of technical accounting, he is able to assist small and medium-size manufacturing companies establish GAAP compliant accounting and reporting systems.