“It doesn’t have to be the Sistine Chapel, it can just be that somebody needs a data migration. And that’s going to be 10 – 20 hours you can probably do in your sleep..”Mark Baum
This is the third 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.
Mark Baum is a senior application developer at Soliant Consulting, where he is a member of the FileMaker team. Prior to that he was a Technical Marketing Evangelist at FileMaker, Inc. There he helped produce tutorials, demos, FileMaker DevCon, and the FileMaker Certification exam. Mark has more than 20 years of experience leveraging the FileMaker Platform in a wide range of industries, including auto manufacturing, real estate, hospital systems, higher education, non-profits, and trade publishing. He also has a side career as a performer and composer of Latin American songs. Look for his music online!
JONATHAN NICOLETTI (of join::table):
First, could you tell us a little about yourself as a FileMaker Developer?
I was a computer geek as a kid. I had my little Apple II+, I learned machine language, built a synthesizer, did stuff! Then I got a little older and decided I didn’t want to be a geek anymore, so I went into the arts, learned the piano, attended conservatory, and became an actor. But I realized I was a geek anyway—that my art was geeky just like my computer programming was geeky. And I dipped my toe back into computers when I needed some money. After touring the country as an actor, I moved to San Francisco in the mid 90s and quickly realized that working as a temp and as a cater waiter wasn’t going to cut it.
I fell right back onto my computer skills in a big way and worked for a company that sold extensions to QuarkXPress, flogging the products in various forums, writing web content and trade magazine articles, and getting to know FileMaker Pro 3. At one point I was so tired of cutting and pasting content for the online magazine that I wrote some AppleScript to pull content out of the print magazine’s QuarkXPress files into a content management system I created in FileMaker. Then I integrated that with the online version of the company’s trade magazine, and that success totally got me hooked on the idea of FileMaker as middleware.
After that company went bankrupt, I decided that keeping up with web design was too much work, so I started doing in-house FileMaker work full time, starting with business-to-business telemarketing. On the side, I did web design for free for various artists and teachers whose work I wanted to support.
Next I worked for eight years at a medical university and then found my way to the FileMaker mothership with the help of sales engineers Alexei Folger and Phil Smith. I started as an in-house developer with Jeff Benjamin—I have never in my life seen as many robot client machines as he had running there—and then I joined the marketing department where I worked on DevCon. All of that was a marvelous experience (hooray for my wonder twin Shari!), but eventually I decided that I wanted to start developing again.
So I took a big leap and went to Soliant because in spite of my years of FileMaker experience, I still didn’t have a handle on consulting, or even on following best practices consistently. You know, I got my training in the “Wild Wild West” and I can cowboy till the cows come home. It was time to surround myself with people who were good at every phase of a project because I sure had a lot of growing to do.
How long have you been doing pro bono work? ( in years, projects, or both!)
In the late 90s, I found this wonderful local organization that was run by women teaching other women to defend themselves. As a teenager, I had spent a lot of time in the radical lesbian community as a sort of “gay boy mascot” and had always felt like I needed to go through that training, too. It brings up deep stuff and changes you completely.
Once a year they would offer a men’s class, which isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what there was, you know, because I couldn’t imagine dealing with my own experience of sexual violence in a group of men, but it turned out to be profoundly healing. Like, I had always thought I was a pacifist, but there I had the profound realization that, instead, I simply didn’t believe I was worth protecting. I also had to come to terms with the fact that I had been unable to defend myself in the past when it mattered most. Let me tell you, it was both painful and liberating to the point that for the first time in my life I was willing to contemplate identifying as a man. So out of gratitude for all that, I started doing pro bono work for that organization for a couple of years.
It lasted that long because I was terrible at project management. What they really needed was a minimum viable product that would rescue them from chaotic spreadsheets, but I wanted to be a hero and had no clue about controlling scope. I tried to do everything the client asked for rather than what they needed, my architecture was terrible, and it was very hard to finally cross the finish line. I also had that “FileMaker can do everything” mindset that a lot of people have when they first fall in love with the platform.
Since then in my pro bono work I’ve focused on helping with small tasks like data cleaning and data migrations. I like knowing what to do, how to do it, and not worrying about scope. I can get in, make a contribution, and get out.
The only other big projects I’ve done were the philanthropy-focused FileMaker Developer Challenge—which was part of my job but a big labor of love—and recently a project I worked on with Soliant, helping an organization that provides support and therapy services for survivors of sexual violence. But what do you know? I got into scope trouble once again.
We started out great: my job was just to coach the client while they did the development. Then we decided that would take too long so I should take over the development to get a working Minimum Viable Product (MVP) up and running. But the MVP turned into a maximum-VP because the client decided they couldn’t use the app unless we delivered all the features at once. All of them. All at once. You know the drill.
So I ask you: how many years later is that? It’s 2019. It’s exactly thirty years later and I’m right in the same place, struggling with scope and wanting to be a hero. Go figure.
What have I learned in all this time? Focus on small engagements, like twenty hours or less. If something like that comes your way, grab it because it’s a low commitment, it feels good and it helps somebody. It doesn’t have to be the Sistine Chapel, it can just be that somebody needs a data migration. And that’s going to be 10 – 20 hours you can probably do in your sleep. If it turns out that you can’t do it in your sleep, well, it’s a great way to learn without getting too overwhelmed. Just keep your eyes open for things that are in your wheelhouse and are really self-contained.
What motivates you to do pro bono work?
Even though you need to follow all the same practices as you would a paying client, including establishing a time budget and having boundaries, the relationship is different. It feels different. There’s a sense of your being in it together that is pretty unusual with paying engagements. When you really care about the mission of their organization, it shifts the relationship in a very special way.
I suppose that I make friends with most of my clients, it’s part of who I am, and having a sense of humor and humility is a big part of building professional relationships. But that’s what they still are: professional relationships. I don’t have the expectation they will continue past the duration of the project. Pro bono work seems different: it can form friendships that last a lifetime.
Another thing that motivates me personally is that my partner came to this country from Colombia as a political asylee. He had been working as a lawyer in the Colombian Supreme Court and had advocated there for civil rights which put his life in danger, so he had to leave the country. He ended up first in Florida, but that was too close to home, so he came to the Bay Area which is where we met. He was homeless for a while and we worked together to find him a place to live, then an entry-level job with a non-profit here in San Francisco that helps homeless families. And because he is a brilliant administrator, twenty years later he is now the chief operating officer of that same organization.
So for 20 years I have watched him give to the community and I look at my own work and I’m like.. “uh… I’m working for this multinational company, the people I work for aren’t always politically aligned with me, but I hope I’m doing some good by just being me.” Of course I put my feelings aside and advocate for their business, that’s my job, but sometimes I just feel that I need to do something to balance that out. That’s one of my major motivators: looking at my partner and other people I admire, and thinking, “Darn it, I need to do something myself, I need to get off my butt and find a way to give back.”
I spend many hours a day at the computer and although I talk to my clients, mostly I’m in my little chair working from home all by myself. It’s good to do pro bono work locally and have it get you out of the house and let you actually see the work that the organization is doing. It gives me a glimpse of other people who are making a real difference in my community. And that in itself sets up a positive feedback loop. It motivates me to do more pro bono work because there is yet another example of somebody doing better things than I am! It’s a feedback loop of inspiration—or guilt—whatever gets you going.
And it doesn’t just exercise my technical skills, but it also broadens my sense of what’s possible. I’d say that regardless of our political outlook, many of us can agree that things don’t look so good at the moment in terms of community and our society getting it together as a nation. Anything that any one of us can do to foster community and communication—that’s genuine patriotism. It’s a light showing one step of the way towards getting us out of this mess.
What impact has your pro bono development had on the organizations and communities you partner with?
I love empowering people in the technological arena. I love meeting somebody who is clearly smart and interested but is feeling intimidated or is up against some technical barrier that they feel like they can’t get past. Helping them see that there is a way around it and that they’re smart and capable and they can do it—the impact there is so visible.
It helps that I love it and that I’m good at it. So many people have done that for me, opened up the way when I thought things were impossible, with singing and public speaking and computers and so much else. I have great models to call on, some still with us, some that have passed on, when it’s my job to help someone believe in themselves.
You know, everybody has their skill. Someone else might not want to engage as personally as I do. Maybe doing more coding and less coaching might be more comfortable for them. But finally I see myself as a bridge. I’m a good developer, but a better communicator. I like to be between the really hardcore tech people and the planners and the people with the requirements and all the rest of it. I like translating and helping to bring people together, to work as part of a problem-solving team where my skill is both strategic and interpretive. When people are having trouble communicating because they don’t speak the same language, it’s really satisfying for me to get in there and help people understand each other.
What sort of challenges have you experienced doing pro bono projects?
When you go on your own with a project, it can be overwhelming to feel responsible for everything, but it also can be the perfect bootcamp if you’re thinking about becoming an independent consultant. Still, I don’t think that you need to ask all that of yourself. It’s better to find support through an organization like join::table or within the organization you’re helping. You don’t have to do it alone.
Often, non-profits themselves don’t have the internal staffing to run a project. Sometimes it’s best to steer clear of those situations. They might think that they have a FileMaker project for you to do but if they don’t have the expert user, the stakeholder, the project advocate, then what they’ve really got is a black hole of time and good intentions. If they don’t have somebody with the bandwidth to represent the business with you when you work, everyone will suffer, you’ll be guessing what they need, and the project will be unlikely to succeed.
What advice would you give to someone considering doing pro bono work?
Learning to estimate is key. It involves high-level requirements gathering followed by an assessment process that feels meaningful to you and not just like guessing. I like t-shirt sizing or working with story points. At Soliant we use the beginning of the Fibonacci series: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. You figure out what “1” means to you and make sure you have identified several tasks at that level. Then you go through all the high-level tasks and decide which are 2s or 3s or 5s or higher. It’s fun to get someone else involved and have them assign points independently and then compare results. Partnering with somebody who is good at estimating is a great way to learn, it can be really playful, and I’ll bet that’s something that join::table can help with.
After estimating, the next challenge is taking the time to describe the requirements in greater detail and not skipping past that because you’re jumping to conclusions. FileMaker Pro provides a great rapid development platform, but rapid does not mean rushed. Just because you can develop quickly doesn’t mean you can skip requirements. You’ll miss the anticipation, the pleasantly self-denying ache of not solving anything until the problem is clearly described.
The final challenge is simply good project management and maintaining scope. That’s the mantra: maintain scope, maintain scope, maintain scope. Say no. Of course they are good people doing wonderful work and you want to help them, but you are going to help them best by saying no. And I’m saying this for my benefit more than for anyone else—when you’ve got strong feelings about the project, it’s so easy to forget.
There’s also nothing wrong with wanting something for yourself. What do you want to learn from your next pro bono engagement? Is this engagement the right one for you right now? What is the takeaway that you will get from this project professionally?
Finally, risk management is a crucial aspect of every project. In this context, part of risk management is knowing what you have time for, what you’re interested in, and what you can contribute with the least effort. If you are the only resource, the project will come to a standstill if you get sick, if you get paid work that you have to work instead, and so on. There is a whole set of expectations to set for the client from the beginning, but also to reassess in the course of the project on a regular basis: what are the risks that the project is currently experiencing and how are you going to mitigate those risks? Are any of them threatening the entire success of the project or could they just slow it down?
Some of this stuff can be totally invisible to you if you haven’t done it before, so it’s best if you can find a project manager who can help with this. Even if you just pull someone in for a monthly review, just for a quick meeting to get their point of view on it. That’s a low commitment for them and a high upside for you.
The FileMaker community is a really supportive place, so if you seek you’ll probably find. And every relationship that emerges from doing pro bono work could manifest as an employment opportunity for you down the road. As part of join::table, you might meet someone you want to work with on your paid gigs: mentors, subcontractors, someone to start a new business with, who knows? You might just make new friends.
Thank you for sharing, Mark!
Thank you! I’m grateful to have had the chance to share some of my story with you.