Why You Still Count as a Person if You Have Used Microsoft Access—(or How Old Are You, Julie? (or the overuse of parenthesis in early 21st century Bloggery))

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(A Short blog post for DYFHID.  This is like, eight years later than I had hoped, but I do like to keep my promises.  )

Yes, people rag on MS Access. Yes it’s a tippy tool.  YES, you really SHOULD wean yourself off of Access and move to SQL Server as quickly as possible if you like this crazy mixed up data business (and making money). 

But let me share my Holly Hobby Sewing Machine story with you.  (really Julie, Holly Hobby?  How old are you?) 

When I was a kid I had a toy Holly Hobby sewing machine.  It was made of thin plastic parts, glued together with finger paste.  It couldn’t do much.  If you tried to sew through more than 2 kleenex depth worth of fabric, or tried to go too fast, or tried to do any fancy curves or zig-zags, it would complain loudly and break in some dramatic way.   But –using it I learned the absolute basics of sewing and sewing machines.  Thread the needle. Thread the bobbin.   Push the pedal to sew the fabric together.  Avoid Puckering. (tee hee, you said pucker).   I quickly realized I needed a better tool and moved on to a domestic sewing machine designed for grownups with denim, and even eventually supported myself as a costumer using super duper industrial machines capable of sewing diamonds to kryptonite at the speed of light.

There was a similar evolution in my technical career.   I spent the first four years of my career at a business where the primary data was stored in a COBOL application.  The reporting and data extraction were all done through ODBC links to —(drumroll please) MS ACCESS 97. 

It was tippy.  It didn’t scale.  It was located on my local machine.  It used way too many staging tables, because its memory couldn’t process the data from the application without freezing and dying.  If you tried to do anything fast or fancy, it would complain and break, just like my toy sewing machine had done 15 years previously.  But—using it I did learn the absolute basics of sewing database programming and design.  Create a table.  Create another related table.  Write queries.  (Access does not in any way prevent the design of properly normalized data models)

 I forged on learning how to write decent (albeit tippy) databases and got quite a lot of work done with them, considering.  I did realize that I needed to make the switch to the heavy duty Server Technology and paid for my own training in SQL Server, then through stubborn perseverance got a job using it.  Several jobs later, here I am.  I haven’t seen the inside of Access in years.

Here is my point (and yes thank you Ellen DeGeneres, I do have one) (**are you quoting the title of Ellen DeGeneres’ 120 year old book?, SERIOUSLY Julie HOW OLD ARE YOU?)

I am not a bad developer because I started with Access.  It didn’t cause brain damage.  I was a good Access programmer and I am a good SQL Server developer because I have a fairly logical, process oriented mind.  No matter what tool I am using, I still have to process my data logically and efficiently.  I still have to listen to my users, formulate a plan for how to realize their dreams and implement that plan, using the best tools at my disposal. 

A person can have a lot of technical knowledge about SQL Server and still miss the mark on a project through any number of missteps (I.T. projects are fraught with peril—never forget that).  Never underestimate the importance of being smart and attentive.  You can’t fix stupid with a better tool.

(Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off (to lunch) at Piccadilly.)

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Julie Smith

One half of the Datachix.com. ETL person. This picture is the best of me ever taken. Don't be too sad when you meet me for real :)

11 thoughts on “Why You Still Count as a Person if You Have Used Microsoft Access—(or How Old Are You, Julie? (or the overuse of parenthesis in early 21st century Bloggery))”

  1. From @Datachix2 (Audrey)… Oh, @Datachix1, I was more of a Strawberry Shortcake girl myself… but I did once have a Holly Hobby blanket. (Seriously? How old ARE we? 😉 )

    I love this post. I have the exact opposite problem. I started my career on Oracle 7.3, and never, ever learned a thing about Access. About 2 years into my career, I was asked to step in on an Access problem, and I was lost. Like, I didn’t even know how to open the database. It was embarassing, and got me over my elitist Oracle DBA thing very, very quickly.

    To add to what Julie’s saying, knowledge is knowledge, baby. And good design is good design, whether it’s on a sheet of notebook paper or a multi-million dollar server platform.

    Hugs, fellow datachix, and save me a seat at Picadilly. I hear the creamed cauliflower is fabulous today!

  2. This is an absolutely great blog, with a good point. But it doesn’t change the fact that Access shouldn’t be used for production systems any more than a Holly Hobby sewing machine should be used in a tailor’s shop…or a Broadway show’s costume department.

    I’m with ya, in a sense, but…FIE, FIE ON ACCESS!!

    1. Jen,

      Oh God I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m condoning Access for use in Production. The point is that it worked for me as a learning tool for a short time and it wasn’t a worthless investment of time. Just like the kiddy sewing machine. Sure it would have been better if I’d been working on SQL Server (and boy I did try and convince my employers of that fact to no avail). As I made the transition from Access to SQL Server I went through a lot of self doubt because of the fact that all of my experience was in Access, but as I gained more experience in SQL Server I gave myself credit for learning logical design using the only tool I had, which was Access. My hope for someone who has worked with Access and wants to move on to SQL Server or some other Enterprise product would be to go for it, and don’t discount what you know already.

  3. Honestly, your post is rather sad. I have worked with Access almost since day one of it’s existence and it’s done very well for my and the firms I work for. Most serious Access devs use sql server or oracle or postgres for the datastore and have for a long time. Access is a good if not great front end for data. And despite the stagnation of the tool and recent repurposing as a sharepoint thing, it’s still more productive than any other tool for building front ends and for manipulating data that I know of. It’s not a fit for all needs, just like anything else. If you know of something better let me know. Obviously, SQL Server does not compete with Access; its competes with JET/ACE, the optional Access data store. You know that, right?

    What is really sad is that developers seem to feel the need to have something to scoff at. Access is a safe thing to kick around for most of you. Most of you have no clue about it either; but you know it’s safe ground to put down.

    I have replaced many systems built on .net and java. In those cases the users hated the .net apps and loved what I created for them. Why? Not because Access is greater than .net, obviously. But I’m a better developer than a lot of you self praising people out there. Or maybe it’s that .net/java etc requires so much extra leg work to the basics up that there is no focus on what the business needs are. Oh and by the way my Access solutions cost a quarter of the typical .net/java apps they replace.

    But go ahead and feel cool by letting everyone know that by God you don’t want to sound like you’re condoning the use of Access in production. You are superior; you still count as a person even though you touched Access a long long time ago when you were young and foolish. Right?

    Most IT people are geared towards the pushing themselves up by putting down whatever it is they don’t use or know. It’s embarrassing.

    Personally I like Access, .net in it’s various incarnations, sql server, postgres, oracle/apex, and flex. Access is still productive for many situations, if you know what you’re doing.

    1. Hey there just me.

      Your comments brings up a good point–I didn’t make any distinction in my post about the specific uses of Access. To clarify, I was referring to the use of Access as a back end. That was the only choice I had in my first data job. I do realize that Access gives a lot of bang for the buck as far as quick front ends.

      And the title is a rather tongue in cheek poke at the virulence with which people do criticize Access. So no I wouldn’t ever recommend a business house their data in an Access mdb file, but I also thought I was trying rather hard to show that there is room in the boat for everyone. Sorry if I offended you personally.

  4. Julie,

    Please, let’s not dwell on the age thing 🙂 Somewhere in the back of my head (and I’m sure, in yours too) is an 18 year old. My body may disagree, but my brain, well, that’s another matter.

    That being said, thank you so much for this post! I, too, cut my teeth on Access, in fact, I still have some in production. Now, to assuage those calling FIE! (you know who you are, Jen!) The databases are small, confined to one department each of no more than half a dozen people, and are all in teh process of being converted to either VB.Net programs with SQL Server back ends, or left as Access front ends with SQL Server back ends.

    But the point of the post was the learning. In my case, I sepnt more time learning the VBA to make the Access “apps” *sparkle* ’cause you can do some really neat things with VBA. I have Access “apps” that create and fill in spreadsheets for reporting, bundle up said spreadsheets as email attachments and email them, all kinds of cool stuff. The ones that are more for holding data, those are the ones migrated to SQL Server first, because once they start to come close to 100MB or so, they start to really complain.

    But I did learn a lot from them, enough that when we acquired SQL Server, I had a great head start on learning it, because of my Access experience.

    And thanks for making this “A Short blog post for DYFHID” – You’re so sweet! See you in Columbia for SQLSat48!

  5. I have the echo the crowd who really appreciate this post.

    Like a lot of you, I began working on Access on only within the past few months have managed to leave it completely behind me. I am glad I had such a user friendly tool to cut my teeth on.

    To this day, I still believe that Access has a place in business (both the front and back end aspects) just as .NET does, or SQL Server does. The major problem that Access faces is that is does not scale up nearly as well as many of the other options, so implementing any sort of long term functionality based on Access is betting against yourself as you will eventually have to move to another tool. Since businesses tend to be loathe to change things they don’t have to, this results in Access being used well beyond its time and creating major headaches for the people who attempt to support it.

    1. Thanks for the comment Mike. I have given this even more thought since my initial post and besides the HH sewing machine analogy; I now think I have an even better one: Access is like a really Brittle Swiss Army Knife. It can do almost anything, but don’t push too hard–it’ll break. 🙂

      1. I have given this even more thought since my initial post and realize even more clearly that you have no idea what you’re saying. As I mentioned before, and to which you agreed, Access is not a data storage engine. JET/ACE is; it can be brittle, so you don’t use it where it should not go. Just like any other development tool.

        Access as a front end development package has plenty of limitations. But it’s still massively versatile. There is nothing else like it. Jet/Ace is not a great data store for multiple users…there are other dbs like that. So what? There are plenty of great multi user dbs out there.

        I wonder why this concept is so hard for you to get? Anyways, carry on with your myth making.

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