[TSTIL] Access2Mendix

[ This is a part of "The Software That I Love", a series of posts about Software that I created or had a small part in ]

2012 - Access2mendix

I'm not sure how this project got handed to me. Maybe we were a bit desperate to find new revenue, and in that search, someone had realized that a lot of enterprises used mini-apps built on Microsoft Access. Microsoft Access was installed on most systems because it was bundled with Office, and it allowed mildly technical users to build apps. Going through proper IT processes involved layers of red-tape so lots of people had built lots of solutions with Access. As I hated red-tape too I understood those people very well. They were what was called "shadow-IT". These apps were stored on some shared folder which only a couple of people knew about, and no one knew how to maintain it. Lots of processes were going through these "unofficial" apps and this was seen as a problem, because IT was not in control.

With Mendix we thought we could do better. Our platform was more secure, more scalable and supported smartphones too. With our centralized admin tools, IT would be in control.

We would target these companies directly and try to sell our platform. By this time Derek and Martijn had moved to the US and had started our Boston office. To blow US prospects away, they needed a Demo with capital D. Martijn was already amazing at demoeing Mendix, and built apps while the potential clients watched. It really was something to see. Here I learned that "the product will sell itself" is BS. You need great sales people, and at Mendix we had lots of them.

To tailor the Demo to their new story, it would be great if they'd have a customer upload their old Access app, and get a Mendix app out of it within minutes. This somehow ended up with me. I believe Derek remembered my WebModeler v0.1 experiment and bypassing two layers of management, asked me if I could take a look at this "Access2Mendix" solution. CEOs will be CEOs I guess.

What followed was the most productive weekend I have ever had. Normally working weekends is crap, there is a deadline and you don't really want to be working but you have to. Here there was no deadline, no pressure, just a very interesting challenge.

It would be really powerful if Access2Mendix was built within Mendix, so that's what I created. It was 99% Java code, but no one would know that. I wanted to convert three things from the Access app:
  • the data model
  • the data
  • the logic
The forms were kind of impossible to convert, so to compensate for that I created default admin forms, one per entity in the data model.

You have to understand that although I was in R&D, I was a complete outsider to how the Mendix model worked. I used Mendix, but had no insights into the specification. In fact, there was no documented specification. It would take another couple of years before Meinte and Jos would create that. I had to reverse engineer everything.

First I learned how to read an Access file using an open source Java library. Then I took an "example project" from Mendix and started manipulating the MPR file manually, inserting new modules, models, microflows and forms. I believe I was the first person to ever attempt this, and the Modeler crashed in weird ways whenever I made an error. The development cycle was super addictive. Add some conversion logic, upload, see the result within seconds. If it worked, go to the next functionality, if not, fix the conversion logic.

I literally worked from Friday evening 7pm till Monday morning 8am and only slept 6 hours per night. At the end I had a Mendix app where you could upload an Access file and within seconds you got a fully functioning Mendix app + database back. Customers loved seeing their actual data directly in the new app. It made for a super impressive Demo.

Unfortunately the whole Access conversion market was less spectacular than we thought and the project was abandoned after a couple of months.

The main thing I got out of it was a reputation within our sales and management teams. In turn I gained a lot of respect for our sales people and made some new buddies within the company. A couple months later we had the first Company Kick-Off at Duinrell. At the party Derek started handing out awards. It was great to see each other's contributions and celebrate them. During his short speech towards the first ever R&D Excellence Award I suddenly realized, oh crap, he's talking about me! I had to get on stage and after the initial rush of introverted feelings I was very proud. I believe this project was one of the contributors to me getting that award.

previous2012 - mxplient


Popular posts from this blog

AI programming tools should be added to the Joel Test

The unreasonable effectiveness of i3, or: ten years of a boring desktop environment

The long long tail of AI applications