Access hurdle

At Eusprig this year Dean Buckner of the FSA made a comment that struck a nerve.

He said (roughly) there has always been a hurdle to using Access, its not quite as easy to get going with as Excel. People tend to need to know a bit more about software to use Access, and that keeps many away from Access. His comment was that that hurdle has been breached, and use of Access is now widespread.

Thats exactly what I am seeing, and I am undecided whether it is good or not (so was Dean). The image I have is of a dam being breached first by a trickle and then by a gushing torrent. And that is what I am seeing, people get past the basics, understand simple tables and queries and they are off, creating Access monsters with no design and no documentation and little thought just like the spreadsheet monsters they build.

I’m not dissing either product, just making the point that the issue is the people and the processes, not the tools, that cause the creation of these hard-to-work-with monsters.

My comment was ‘Access is the new Excel’, and next year we will be talking about the risks associated with uncontrolled Access use. Anyone else seeing similar?

Anyone got a strong view on which is better/worse? (I suspect I think Access is better because it has more structure, but it would depend on the actual usage I think.)

Cheers

Simon

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24 Responses to “Access hurdle”

  1. Harlan Grove Says:

    The quickest way to make people who aren’t primarily developers figure out that they need to exercise some design and implementation discipline is to make them maintain or upgrade SOMEONE ELSE’S model. The first monsters I built were, er, lightly documented TurboPascal and QuickC applications. Fortunately, they were simple to use, and the code contained comments for the uglier bits (like trying to make them produce the same rounded results as mainframe FORTRAN programs).

    I got my eye-opener in my next job where I had to upgrade someone else’s monster spreadsheet (circa 1991, and the people who’d be using the upgraded model would have brand new 386 PCs that could run Lotus 123 Release 3 rather than Release 2). In addition to rewriting the model from scratch, I wound up writing a 70 page user guide (lots of screen images) and a 100 page implementation document going over most of the formulas and all of the macros. That was the only time I’ve had a manager that understood the necessity of the latter and was willing to give me the time to write it.

  2. Simon Says:

    I totally agree on the maintenance thing, thats a standard progression in mainstream sw. you would expect to start as a maintenance dev and move on eventually to full lifecycle. Never really thought why, but your point covers it I think.
    The trouble with the whole End User computing thing is that its all DIY. and just like the house bodges you get s/s bodges. Maybe this is part of what makes it hard to manage.

  3. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Simon:

    Interesting post (as always).

    If Access is expanding in Europe that sure is news to us here in N.A. All corporations I deal with consider Access a “virus” and do anything to avoid using Access. Strange contradiction?

    Frankly after spending the last 15 years promoting Access, I have decided that Microsoft has decided to kill it and evolve it into a “Web-Part” inside SharePoint. Thereby relegating it to managing attendee lists for meetings and maybe recipe lists, etc.

    The past spring I sat in the office of an Access manager at MS and when I showed him several of my major Access apps done for corporations his response was “Why didn’t you do that in VS? That’s not what Access is for…” Huh? This from a senior Access manager!!!

    At that moment I decided to return to focusing on my first love – spreadsheeting. Ironically (or maybe not so ironically) the skills I use in Access are front and center in all my Excel work. I strongly believe that if you don’t know Access (or at least database theory), you will never become a good spreadsheeter in the new world of data analysis. It’s a BIG shame, but once again I have learned that you can’t fight city-hall.

    I hope you’re right about Access over there. Maybe I should move to Europe ;-).

    Dick

  4. Simon Says:

    Dick
    I totally agree on the value of database theory.
    I didn’t say Access was popular, just that is was being used (well abused really) a lot.
    I used to do bogs and bins on a campsite (clean the toilets and empty the bins). It was a dirty job, with zero credibility, but someone had to do it. Sometimes I think the move to desktop development was not much of a move at all. Still considered dirty, still no credibility, still ‘a necessary evil’, and the weather is worse.
    Look me up when you come to Europe, otherwise see you in September.
    cheers
    Simon

  5. Biggus Dickus Says:

    We are the “Rodney Dangerfield’s” of developers – No Respect !!

    Dick

  6. Ross Says:

    Humm,

    I’m not sure about the increase in Access use, I don’t really get to see it. I agree with “process not tool”.

    One thing that has been bumping around my tiny mind, is that MS might be positioning themselves to get rid of Access. Excel now supports 1m rows, and I get the feeling that MS don’t like Access, they have cut it out of the SQL team and now it sits on its own I think. The thing is Jet is quite old now and not really up to speed with “proper” RDBMS, so maybe MS think all those Access projects could be VSxx and SQL server linaces for us? Not sure where that leaves desktop database with over 1m records though!

  7. Simon Says:

    Ross
    I thought it was common knowledge (/strong rumour) that MS have been trying to retire Access for years. Hence the exclusion from some versions of office, and the hyping of MSDE and SQL express.
    I don’t really think they have a handle on why people use their products.
    JET is intrinsic to Windows, which is Access’ biggest benefit. The alternatives don’t have that deployment ease.

  8. sam Says:

    “Access is the new Excel”

    I think its going to be the other way round i.e Excel with Access built in….
    Its almost there once you

    a) Remove the row limit from Excel
    b) Introduce a “DATASHEET” (Structured Excel sheet)
    c) Beef up security

    Sam

  9. Ross Says:

    >>I thought it was common knowledge (/strong rumour) that MS have been…

    yeah probably has, I guess in that case I just agree.

    >>I think its going to be the other way round i.e Excel with Access built in….
    Its almost there once you

    Well I think that would make more sense, I think that might be what MS are angling for? Anyone agree?

  10. Biggus Dickus Says:

    >>I think that might be what MS are angling for? Anyone agree?<<

    I’d like to think so, but I haven’t seen any indication (if I knew I couldn’t tell you though ;-)). I guess I CAN tell you what I DON’T see …….

    Dick

  11. Marcus Says:

    “use of Access is now widespread”

    I’d suggest that there are a lot more Access databases floating around, but this is not proportionate to the number of people ‘creating’ those databases. Yes there are more people creating them, but often for small groups of users to use.

    “…just like the spreadsheet monsters they build”

    No. Worse. My wife conducted an Access training course once which included a secretary to the GM of a sizable vehicle parts manufacturer. She said that after the course she was expected to develop an inventory database for the company. No one would expect to do a week-end first aid course and expect to come out ready to perform major surgery. With this perception you can already predict that the patient isn’t going to make it.

    “Access is better because it has more structure”

    Perhaps they both, Excel & Access, have structure but Access has more innate functionality to enforce that structure. Also users employ the same paradigm developing a database which they use with their spreadsheets. Example: One user had a spreadsheet which contained multiple sheets. The structure of each sheet was identical except that each was for a different business unit. The spreadsheet was migrated to Access using the same structure – each worksheet became a separate table (each with no PK). This made the intent of the migration – the capacity to easily create reports which compared business units – a horrible mess.

    Cheers – Marcus

  12. Biggus Dickus Says:

    I do not believe that “end-users” are capable of designing and building a relational database (regardless of the functionality built into Access to help them do so). Development in Access has to be a professional pursuit – plain and simple.

    If “users” are developing “applications” in Access then their companies are making a big mistake (unless it is a quick & dirty short-term list management app).

    One of my beefs with MS on Access is that they INSIST that Access be an end-user tool. That is their current spin on Acess. Get over it !!

    Databases require a special set of skills (so do spreadsheets for that matter but that’s another story) and require a dedicated class of worker to build them. Simple fact.

    Dick

  13. Jon Peltier Says:

    BD –

    >If “users” are developing “applications” in Access then their companies are making a big mistake

    Sure, but what companies provide a department to construct such database applications? IT departments don’t want to touch them, and for the most part are unqualified anyway. And the companies I’ve worked for have had the attitude that, if you want (not “need”! ha!) such a database, take this two day course, then go home and develop it after dinner.

  14. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Jon:

    Yep – exactly right.

    I blame MS for this situation. They have done a piss-poor job of getting the word out on Access in the last 5 years or so. There was a time when Access was really “hot” and there was a huge base of people genuinely trying to learn the product in total and trying to build solid, responsible applications. Then MS let the air out of the balloon. For me it started when they dropped Access form their Certification program – a BIG statement there …..

    The problem for me is that all the people who developed the product left (either to their private South Seas island – or to other MS groups) and those that replaced them drank the Koolaid from on high that the future lay in VS and Enterprise apps. No interest in the “Departmental” applications that are a HUGE need in business that Access targeted perfectly.

    I can’t begin to tell all the success stories I have had with Access over the last 15 years – apps that are still used evry day – but it’s over for me. You can’t fight city hall.

    I do on the other hand believe that MS CANNOT kill Excel – so from now on I will focus on Excel – my first love anyway – and try to build responsible, reliable applications using spreadsheet technology.

    Dick

  15. Simon Says:

    Dick
    I agree, but kinda struggle to see how this fits in with the new push for OBAs and LOB apps.
    http://blogs.msdn.com/oba/default.aspx

    It seems a bit like give a bloke a fish feed him for a day teach him to fish and give him the kit and feed him for life – only in reverse.
    Take the tools off the business users, and give then some generic hard to apply thing that they will not be able to adapt (unless they have VS etc etc ). And then hope they call in an MS partner to sort it all out?? (that would be nice).
    I do wish they would incorporate the best bits of Access into Excel, rather than turning it into a sharepoint list management tool.

  16. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Simon:

    <>

    Amen – but don’t hold your breath.

    <>

    I am trying to figure this out myself…. The question is “Who is supposed to deliver this stuff?” Guys like us who come from the Office side or VS developers? I think it’s the latter and I think that is misguided for all kinds of reasons.

    I haven’t seen too many big Partners very interested in Office development. Sure SharePoint seems to have caught some attention, but without people heavily skilled in the Office products (as Office developers using all the pieces of Excel, Access, etc) they won’t get very satisfying, reliable, sustainable solutions. Just cute looking stuff that lasts a few cycles and then just dies away…

    We’ll see I guess.

    Dick

  17. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Simon:

    Let’s try that again :

    <>

    Amen – but don’t hold your breath.

    <>

    I am trying to figure this out myself…. The question is “Who is supposed to deliver this stuff?” Guys like us who come from the Office side or VS developers? I think it’s the latter and I think that is misguided for all kinds of reasons.

    I haven’t seen too many big Partners very interested in Office development. Sure SharePoint seems to have caught some attention, but without people heavily skilled in the Office products (as Office developers using all the pieces of Excel, Access, etc) they won’t get very satisfying, reliable, sustainable solutions. Just cute looking stuff that lasts a few cycles and then just dies away…

    We’ll see I guess.

    Dick

  18. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Simon:

    Let’s try that again, again :

    “I do wish they would incorporate the best bits of Access into Excel, rather than turning it into a sharepoint list management tool.”

    Amen – but don’t hold your breath.

    “I agree, but kinda struggle to see how this fits in with the new push for OBAs and LOB apps.”

    I am trying to figure this out myself…. The question is “Who is supposed to deliver this stuff?” Guys like us who come from the Office side or VS developers? I think it’s the latter and I think that is misguided for all kinds of reasons.

    I haven’t seen too many big Partners very interested in Office development. Sure SharePoint seems to have caught some attention, but without people heavily skilled in the Office products (as Office developers using all the pieces of Excel, Access, etc) they won’t get very satisfying, reliable, sustainable solutions. Just cute looking stuff that lasts a few cycles and then just dies away…

    We’ll see I guess.

    Dick

  19. Harlan Grove Says:

    You can use Access to write applications that work against real RDBMSs on servers (or even mainframes), but don’t all the real RDBMSs come with their own development tools? One big question is whether the tools included with RDBMSs are good enough that companies doesn’t need to buy Access. I suspect many believe they don’t.

    In large organizations that leaves department-level apps, but most departments don’t have authority to hire outside contractors on their own.

    There may be a market for Access-based apps for the SMB market for a while longer, but I doubt any of you will ever see a large organization ever again building a new system with it. I’d guess MSFT has also figured this out. Where do you suppose MSFT gets more revenue, from SMBs or large organizations? Where do you think they focus their attention?

  20. Biggus Dickus Says:

    “There may be a market for Access-based apps for the SMB market for a while longer, but I doubt any of you will ever see a large organization ever again building a new system with it. ”

    So instead they’ll slap together something inadequate using Excel the way it wasn’t intended to be used.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong.

    I just think it’s a shame, because there’s a whole lot of computing solutions that are not going to be satisfied BECAUSE there is no Access (or Access-like) application made available for Departmental apps. I think that’s unfortunate for businesses mostly.

    That doesn’t mean I think you’re wrong….it just means I’m disappointed that you’re right…..

    Dick

  21. Harlan Grove Says:

    Not necessarily slapping together spreadsheets as alternatives to Access. Where I work we’re undergoing (enduring?) the upgrade to Business Objects on the company intranet. So maybe there’ll be poorly conceived and implemented BO applets, but with such applets on the intranet generating heavily filtered tabular output that could be fed into Excel, how much need is there for Access?

    Excel will survive because it provides nearly unlimited flexibility (if easily abused). Access is dying because it can’t provide such flexibility (not a bad thing), and it doesn’t provide enough structure or performance to compete against server-based, programmable RDBMS or BI software. Access could work with such server-based systems, but is it a NECESSARY component? Does the functionality it could provide vs that bundled with server-based software justify its additional cost?

  22. Simon Says:

    Interesting thought Harlan, are you suggesting that Access just drops in no-mans land? not flexible enough for the Office crowd, too weedy fr the IS crowd? you could be right, but I’m not convinced it needed to go that way.

    The probem I have found with BO and Cognos type things is they are an end point, and so difficult to integrate part way into a process.

    I have some exe apps that grab data from a few places, do stuff and then do other stuff, then write out files, or pump data into another app. If they are reliant on a Cognos report for source data, then controlling those apps programatically is much more painful than just a bit of ADO/DAO against a JET db. I could be missing something, or the client may not have all the right components, but if there is a simple way to do this I have not found it easily discoverable.

  23. Harlan Grove Says:

    Yes, Access is in no-mans land. Not flexible or simple enough ever to have mass appeal, not bad for departmental development, but as others have pointed out some understanding of database theory helps A LOT. However, for development beyond department level (or for departments with heavy duty needs), it’s up against tools built specifically for the database server RDBMS.

    As for automating Intranet applets, general purpose macro processors which can simulate mouse and keyboard actions (e.g., AutoIt or AIM Keys) can be used to automate nearly anything, even if it does seem like the ‘systems’ strongly resemble Rube Goldberg contraptions.

  24. Amo Says:

    Access will not die unless it’s function integated to EXCEL! Access provide us a great flexiblity to manipulate complex data, such as table to table relationship which is similiar with EXCEL’s Vloop up function but more functionable and accurate. mainframe database couldn’t give us (general business analyst) the flexiblity to join our local data with their tables to make analysis. For me, i extract source data from mainframe database such as Oracle to ACCESS and then join our local table with ourself defined table to make summary. It can handle 1-1, 1-many relationship perfectly then EXCEL.

    Best Regards
    Amo

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