“I do databases the way other people do video games; it’s fun for me!”

Richard S. Russell

Please note:
This is the first post in a series of interviews of FileMaker developers who are currently doing pro bono work. At join::table we not only strive to initiate these experiences, but to also celebrate those who are already making a difference in the community. All interviewee views expressed in this post are of the person interviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views or practices recommended by join::table.


 

Richard S. Russell has spent his entire career developing applications in Wisconsin for the state and higher education. Now retired, Richard continues his FileMaker development by working with small family-owned businesses and non-profit organizations. The majority of that development is pro bono to the tune of 20-25 hours a week. With such immense experience doing pro bono work, it was a perfect fit for join::table to share his story first in this series of spotlight interviews.

 

JONATHAN NICOLETTI (of join::table):

First, could you tell us a little about yourself as a FileMaker Developer?

RICHARD:

I was employed for about a quarter century by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) (the state education agency) as an analyst of various flavors (research, policy, systems, budget, statistical) and had lots of opportunities to work with computers, starting with big iron. Beginning around 1984 (the year of Apple’s famously eponymous commercial) I got more involved with microcomputers. I managed the switchover from mainframe-based COBOL (ugh!) to Lotus 1-2-3 for the state’s student data, then transitioned from that to Microsoft Excel. Then I stumbled upon FileMaker II and instantly knew I’d found a better way of doing business.

After leaving the DPI, I did FileMaker Pro development for the [University of] Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) for a couple of years. During that time, the WAA lent me out as a database consultant for the University of Wisconsin Speakers’ Bureau and mentioned my name as a possible resource person for the non-profit organization Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), which operated out of the offices of the University of Wisconsin School of Music. Their offices were only a couple of blocks away from the WAA, so I’d usually swing by there for a couple of hours after work every day. (They worked late because they accommodated themselves to student after-school availability.) These outside organizations broadened my FileMaker experience to the point that I realized how much I enjoyed the work, and I continued working pro bono with those two organizations after retiring from the WAA.

Now retired, I do FileMaker Pro development as a hobby. In other words, I do databases the way other people do video games; it’s fun for me! When it became known that I not only did FileMaker databases, but was good at it, liked it, and was willing to work for free, other opportunities started lining up. I’ve never lacked for opportunities to stay busy.

JONATHAN:

How long have you been doing pro bono work? ( in years, projects, or both!)

RICHARD:

I believe my first gig with WYSO was in 1997, so I guess that adds up to 22 years. Geez, that’s almost as long as I worked for the state! In terms of projects it’s a little harder to judge because my relationship with these organizations is ongoing. They will call me when they have new elements that they want to implement, they will call me if something breaks, they will call me if they need information that is not readily available. In this way, I work at my own pace and schedule as I am needed.

JONATHAN:

What motivates you to do pro bono work? 

RICHARD:

Well, first off, I was a government worker for many years. Nobody goes into that line of work to get rich. I’m driven by the service motive, not the profit motive, and I really like lending a helping hand to worthy causes. Secondly, though, is the fact that database development gives me a chance to exercise both hemispheres of my brain: the orderly, structured, hierarchical part as well as the colorful, expressive, creative part. Third is that I’m cheap. I’d rather contribute my time than my money. Lastly, I spent my professional career in education and a lot of the organizations I do work with are educational organizations. I am a firm believer in education for as many people as possible and I’ll do my part to help that happen.

JONATHAN:

What impact has your pro bono development had on the organizations/communities you partner with?

RICHARD:

Well, I’ve been told on several occasions that the databases I’ve developed are the irreplaceable, operational core of those groups, so I guess that’s a pretty positive impact

JONATHAN:

Wow, well you can’t expect much more than that! To turn the focus back to you then, what impact has doing pro bono work had on you as the developer?

RICHARD:

I can’t honestly say that the pro bono aspect of my work has inspired me to learn more about my favorite software than I would’ve been motivated to pick up on behalf of a business client, but one terrific advantage of working for free is that I can do the job right without having an accountant standing over me with a stopwatch and a ledger sheet. For me, the greatest satisfaction of doing this work pro bono is that there are things you want to do the right way as a professional and you can make them happen. If someone is paying you for that time, they may say, “we don’t really need that feature, we just need this to work.” But you look at it and say, “but I’d really like to give it to you and I think you’ll benefit from it.” If you are doing it for free to begin with, they are perfectly happy to have you do it.

JONATHAN:

What sort of challenges have you experienced doing pro bono projects?

RICHARD:

Staff turnover. Non-profits are chronically underfunded, and that means that there’s a fair amount of churn in employees. It’s always a disappointment when somebody I’ve worked with for a couple of years decides to move on. I really like the emotional connections I develop with dedicated people who are all pulling in the same direction. But that’s life, and I guess it happens everywhere.

Perhaps as a consequence, there have been a number of things I got started on and invested a fair amount of time in and there was no follow up. It may well be that the work I had done was adequate and they just never got back to me with further improvements. Or it may be they abandoned the system because it couldn’t yet do everything they were hoping for. Either way, without a follow up, I feel I may have wasted some of my time with outfits that never took full advantage of the work that I was doing.

Alternatively, if you are doing work for free, I think there can be a tendency to discount the value of the work that you did. They may think, “well I can get this done pretty much anywhere!” and fail to value the product or the service that you are cranking out as much as they should. If I were charging, perhaps they may be more dedicated to seeing it through and investing a collective effort from all the employees.

JONATHAN:

What advice would you give to someone considering doing pro bono work?

RICHARD:

Document, document, document! As mentioned above, there’s employee turnover, and you can’t count on anyone (even yourself) remembering why you did certain things in a particular way if the last time you thought about it was a couple of years ago. Furthermore, I equip every file I make (and often every table in every file) with a wiki field into which users can enter their own notes to themselves as to their preferred procedures, vendors, timelines, etc. With explanations built into the software itself, this can help staff turnover as the staff is not entirely dependent on a single person to explain things to them.

A second recommendation is to develop your own FileMaker Pro Design Blog, like mine: http://rsrfmp.blogspot.com. I include a button linking to that blog in every file I deploy. Often enough, users raise questions to which I’ve already provided detailed answers (with pictures) that I can simply point them at. And the Blogspot software I use allows them to subscribe to updates, so they’re automatically notified every time I post something new.

Another piece of advice is that it is useful to sit down with a knowledgeable person from the organization. Most non-profit organizations feature people who are cause-oriented. They may think, for example, “we really want to make sure those dogs get trained properly so our handicapped clients have a decent companion”. And that’s what their strength and focus is on. They are not computer experts. They are not software experts. They view the database as being a necessary nuisance and they will put up with it to whatever extent they have to, to get the job done but that’s not their primary focus. But of those people, usually there is one of them who is sort of like the in-house computer person they go to if they really have problems. You have to identify that person and work mainly with that person. You want someone who has some knowledge of how computers work and how databases work because those are the people who will be most useful to you. It’s nice to meet everyone else but having that inside person can be the difference between an abandoned database or a successful project.

Lastly, I don’t know too many people interested in doing it the same way I do, since the only database development I do is pro bono. For most people the pro bono is just an add-on they do over and above their normal work. So regardless of that difference, my main piece of advice is if it ever stops being fun, then stop doing it. I am in my 70s and that hasn’t happened to me yet!

JONATHAN:

What advice would you give to an organization considering a pro bono project?

RICHARD:

My standard line that I tell all the organizations I begin working with is: there is no such thing as a completed or finished database. There are abandoned databases but there are no finished databases. Every single one of them is a work in progress. The best thing you can do when you get a new employee, with a fresh set of eyeballs, is set them down in front of the database you have been used to using for the last five years and turn them loose with a notepad beside them. Every time they run across something that makes them say, “why are you doing it this way” or “wouldn’t it be easier like this” or “I don’t understand how to do this”, have them write it down. People who have been working with a database for some time have become accustomed to its quirks, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings. A new employee [or developer] can see things that other people have learned to overlook and point them out for review and improvement.

JONATHAN:

Thank you so much, Richard!


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