When I tell people I’m learning to be a FileMaker developer, I almost always get one of two responses: “What’s that?” or “FileMaker is still around?”
A New Player Has Joined
That second one is usually said with a smile, but it’s still a genuine question. Most of the people who ask it encountered FileMaker decades ago, back in the system’s infancy. For most of them, it was maybe something they played with soon after its introduction or encountered at work. They might not have even used it themselves, just heard of it; and now, it is popping back up again, attached to a fresh, young face. From what they tell me, it was a system they thought had quickly fallen out of favor and passed into obscurity.
With what I’ve seen in my short time at Skeleton Key, though, I’m increasingly surprised that knowledge of FileMaker isn’t more widespread. Especially so when some of the people expressing incredulity have needs that could be served by the platform quite well.
I’ve only been at Skeleton Key since December 2018, but FileMaker is not my first experience with either databases or computer development. I have a bachelor’s in computer science, have worked with large SQL databases, and developed backend web coding in C# and PHP.
So, FileMaker is far from my first database system. It is, however, the most intuitive one I’ve learned, despite being almost alien from my previous experiences. Prior experiences help when picking up a new system or language, of course; understanding the fundamental or similar concepts greatly eases the transition into something new.
For either new users or advanced, though, FileMaker feels far more user-friendly than any other system I’ve used.
What Did I Think FileMaker Would Be?
When I started learning about FileMaker, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew a few things about it, both from prior research and conversations with the people who had just become my coworkers:
I understood that it was a database system. I’d worked with databases before, SQL and Access, so I expected raw tables of data with abstract ways of organizing them. Collections of data would be grouped into tables with loose, arbitrary rules connecting one table to another. Navigating between tables would be an exercise in logic and carefully-constructed queries.
I understood that it was the product of an Apple subsidiary. I actually hadn’t worked much with Apple-related products before, so that was new.
These expectations weren’t exactly wrong, but they fell far short of the reality of FileMaker.
So What Is FileMaker, Really?
FileMaker is a system designed to offer an easy-to-use platform to end users while giving powerful tools to database developers. It is a single tool that offers both a graphics-based user interface and a relational database management system. It offers lightweight development to get a useable system set up in as little as a few minutes as well as the depth and toolset to enforce highly specific and variable business logic. But this isn’t supposed to be a sales pitch, this is supposed to be my impressions of FileMaker after almost a half-year of study.
I suppose the foundation for my esteem for FileMaker is in contrast to the other systems I’ve used. Instead of a base interaction of raw code, almost every piece of development is based on a natural user experience. It is a specialized tool with a focus on applications to interact with a database. But what makes FileMaker different? What really distinguishes it from other options?
I find that the chief difference is that FileMaker is much cleaner and more welcoming to a user than your typical database management system would be. This is the result of blending a drag-and-drop graphic interface with a relational database that handles most of the heavy lifting for you.
For the former, most programming languages can create a beautiful, intuitive experience for the user, but the developing period will involve a tangled mess of code. The developer will spend more time staring at rows and rows of computer characters than anything resembling the finished product. In FileMaker, though, moving a text field is as simple and clicking and dragging it to where you want it. No coding needed.
A well-designed interface will still require experience and time to create, but there’s no disconnect between what the developer sees while developing and what the user sees during use. It’s relatively easy to build an interface where a user can have no idea they are working directly in a database.
For the latter, in my experience, most database development is figuring out how to join tables together. If you need to know what parts go into the products ordered by a particular customer, you need to first figure out how to explain to your database how those things are even connected. FileMaker, however, takes a far more intuitive approach: define at the beginning how things are connected. Once you have your relationships set up between tables, you don’t have to worry about establishing those connections every time you need a piece of information from another table. Where a SQL query involving a dozen tables could take a DBA hours to even set up, a developer setting up a FileMaker layout can just drag a field from a related table onto the layout.
Essentially, FileMaker remembers the relationships established between tables in a way that doesn’t have to be spelled out every time like in other database systems.
An Open Toolbox
These features are my primary takeaways from FileMaker, but they are far from the only ones. Because of its lightweight design interface, FileMaker solutions can be rapidly made into a useable state and, just as quickly, modified to fit evolving requirements. This means both that prototypes can be quickly produced and that features can be added on to existing solutions without taking apart existing work.
With FileMaker’s easy to use toolset, anyone can begin building a solution for any business need. You don’t have to be a seasoned developer to build something to your needs.
Having worked now with many clients who have built their own solutions, it has really become clear to me that FileMaker greatly empowers the average user to take control of their own solution. An in-house, dedicated DBA is not longer tied to day-to-day functionality, unlike other platforms can require. For more elaborate systems, there is an extensive community of FileMaker-certified developers out there that would be happy to help you.
The Every-Business Multi-Tool
Whether you have a degree or not, FileMaker is getting easier and easier to use. Now, that’s not to say FileMaker can’t handle any complex business need that could arise; whether automating workflow, sending files to third-party services, or grabbing data off the internet, FileMaker is capable of anything I can imagine a business could need. FileMaker is a powerful platform not in spite of its simplicity but because of it. In the very short time I have been at Skeleton Key, I have learned more about FileMaker than I thought a platform like it could handle. I look forward to learning even more.
This article was a collaborative effort of Bryce Tyler and Jesse Simmons. Bryce and Jesse both joined Skeleton Key in December 2018. Both were new to the FileMaker platform, but are now well on their way toward becoming FileMaker Certified Developers.
About Skeleton Key
Skeleton Key develops apps on the FileMaker platform making them easy-to-integrate, easy-to-use, and quick to build and deploy. Our team of experts takes a comprehensive consulting approach to focus on learning how your organization operates. With deeper insights into the way your team works, we can create an ideal solution built around your operations while forming a partnership founded on trust and transparency. We hope you found this content useful and we would love to hear from you if we can be of any further assistance.