Workflow is a seemingly simple process — you assign tasks and move a project down a pipeline. So why then is workflow still so difficult to manage? This week, Paul & Rich talk about different workflow tools and how none of them seem quite right for the challenges we are facing today. We discuss the tools that are out there today and the need for better alternatives.
Paul Ford Ninety percent of my computer usage is updating computers. [Rich starts to laugh] I’m so tired of it, man! I just like—iOS, real—It’s just—you’re like, “Ok, iOS, have it your way” [music plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down].
Rich Ziade Hey, Paul.
PF Hey, Rich!
RZ I’m excited to record this episode of the Postlight Podcast, formerly known as Track Changes.
PF Ah, that’s right! You know, when we started this we thought, “Hey, we should have a separate brand for our podcast, our newsletter, and like not get it all mixed up with the company.” [Music fades out] But . . . it turns out that—that’s more confusing; that we’re just one thing: we are Postlight. And, actually, related to that: I just wanna make sure we mention it cuz I think it’s really important that we bring it here to the podcast too: if you go to our website in response to the recent protest movement, we have doubled down and made a pretty serious commitment as a firm, probably an outsized commitment for our size, but it feels right to us to the Black Lives Matter movement and to anti-racism and to really, to human rights in a larger way. We’re gonna put money and we’re gonna put work towards building platforms that make this a better world for more people. And so, that’s another—another way that Postlight is being Postlight. So, look: I have a thing I wanna talk with you about that’s been happening in my home.
RZ Ok? This is . . . not typical but go ahead.
PF [Chuckling] Ok. So, my wife—you know my wife, my wife needs to stay busy. And we’ve got a situation where, you know, kids are at home, pandemic’s goin’ on, she’s helping educate them, and so on. But we’re also in a neighborhood in South Brooklyn here that’s been hit really hard with some of the economic fallout from the pandemic. People are hungry; people are having trouble getting access to resources; folks who are older and so on. And so it’s been very, very interesting to watch . . . software step in to try to create a mutual aid system. And to see the conversations that ensue and also to watch my wife who I would say—I would describe my wife as a power user. She is somebody who truly knows her way around a spreadsheet but not in an engineer. Right? She works in construction. She is someone who builds spaces.
RZ And when you say ‘software’, I just think spreadsheet. I’m just gonna throw that out there but go ahead, you wanna state like, draw the picture out here of what exactly is needed.
PF The problem is literally people in the community who don’t have access to food—they might have trouble getting to the food; they might have no money; they might just—just whatever. They’ve lost their job or the person who usually helps them out isn’t there and what would be really meaningful right now is that somebody could bring a box of food by, that would also be aligned with them culturally. A lot of different cultures down in this neighborhood. You have a set up where you wanna—you wanna get people’s information but you also really want it to be private. This is very sensitive stuff and you want to figure out what they need and how often they need it, and then—the interesting thing is that the food is not the hard part. Food is cheap. Food is actually, like, if I give you a hundred dollars, you can do a lot. The hard part is getting to the person in the neighborhood at the right time while respecting their privacy. And there have been some interesting discussions that I’ve heard which I don’t even wanna go into cuz people are trying their best but like, some people are arguing that we should only use open source software . . . when we are getting people these services. So there’s people talking about the different kinds of platforms and ways to use—So, there’s all—I mean, whenever you’ve done any work with people along these lines, it’s a lot of conversation. And so—and again, I’m trying to be respectful of what I’ve overheard, right? But here’s what I see: I see a lot of Airtable; and I see that—So, Airtable—
RZ Mm hmm.
PF—is the big sort of database-as-a-service. And Airtable is something that I think for you and me—and we’ve talked about it a lot where like that one nerdy person really wants to unlock it, it’s a power tool. And lots of people can use it, just like they can use Google Sheets and they can kinda get in, and mess with it. But the reality is that the Airtable learning curve is fierce. It is fierce—
RZ It’s a world.
PF And it’s not fierce for people who are in spreadsheets all day necessarily or people who are doing this, you know, doing a job and they understand the data model. But if you’re trying to on-board someone because they just wanna drive something from point A to point B or you wanna gen—You know, or like, you wanna get past data and automatically schedule deliveries and things like that, boy, are you in a world. And it’s actually [yeah], it’s been a very good reminder for me that the thing that I think is incredibly simple and intuitive is a lot of complexity for the vast majority of human beings which is, again, not a criticism of Airtable in any way, it’s just like, “Oh my God! It’s harder to do this than you’d think.
RZ Well, it’s, I mean, first off: Airtable, it’s worth noting, is a very mature product. It’s been around for years; you can start to see its depth just by poking around [mm hmm] and you know that that’s not a product of like version 1.0 [one point oh] that’s—that’s years of like—a piece of software maturing in a pretty big way. The other thing, I think, worth noting here is Airtable will replace what used to be essentially the spreadsheet. And by ‘spreadsheet’, I don’t mean spreadsheet as in like calculations and accounting leger and things like that, I mean spreadsheet as makeshift information store. Where you’re just using the rows to put stuff. And so you’re not doing a ton of math, you’re actually using it for . . . effectively governing a process of some kind. And that could be really anything. And it’s been—to this day, the spreadsheet probably—I mean, we’re talking about it Airtable but is probably still the dominant way a lot of work gets done.
PF By orders of magnitude, right? It is the most significant programming language in the world. And—
RZ It is.
PF It’s funny, people come for me . . . You know, there’s a funny moment where somebody asks me, “You know, is HTML and CSS programming?” And I’m like, “Sure! You’re defining a data structure.” And if you wanna get into the decision between whether data . . . or data is code or code is data then you’re actually dealing with something really abstract and so like, yeah, sure. It’s definitely the start of it and the person—I tweeted this out and somebody [chuckles] wrote, “Well then that means that spreadsheets are programming,” and I’m like—I’m kind of in back of my head going like, “Yeah! You’re starting to figure it out!” Like, yes!
RZ Yeah. Oh yeah. I’ve seen people use—I mean, I’ve seen—I have a good friend of mine who’s an absolute power user. He doesn’t distinguish Excel from SQL. Like it’s all one. It’s just a view. Excel is nothing more than a client for all the crazy things he does, and this is an extreme user but it gives him incredible power.
PF No! But it gives him the grid interface that he needs to make sense of the world.
RZ That’s right. Ok, so this sounds like it’s going well. I mean, I—I have this assumption about Airtable and tell me what isn’t working in this example you’re sharing which is . . . a power user stands it all up and then people who don’t have to know about the ugly details of Airtable just use it. Isn’t that enough? Like, why didn’t that work?
PF It’s definitely helping but, you know, so there’s a few things: one is, like I said, it’s complicated to generate things. Like, Airtable is good for importing data and adding data where individuals are sharing the database but it’s hard to hit a button and say like, “Schedule the 50 deliveries for, you know, the 50 people in the database . . . based on this logic.” Like, that requires custom programming. So that’s not a place that it’s gotten yet [yeah]. And there are plugins and ways to do it. It’s stuff like that—Like, it’s very good at defining data, the gap that’s real . . . and I think this is with all of the codeless tools. And you and I have talked about this before: workflow is hard.
RZ Let’s define workflow. What do you mean by ‘workflow’?
PF Well, I think, when I think of it, I think a lot of like, CRM products which is Customer Relationship Management, things like Salesforce where you are moving things along a chain of operations and with the—with a goal in mind, and tasks get assigned to different individuals. And—here’s—I’ll give you an example, too, like, we’re about to face a truly fantastic workflow problem in our society because we use all these tools for scheduling humans that are really not built around there being one or two teams overlapping, and yet, because of Covid, there’s probably gonna be a lot of like, A team and B team coming in on different days of the week or different weeks while trying to preserve social distancing and I’m looking at the tools that are out there and they actually don’t do well. Like, a staffing tool or a, like a sales t—or like they either—you either kind of work remotely or you work in the office or you know where people are, so like, there’s no easy way to schedule that, right? And so I’m just sort of like, that’s a good example of a workflow that’s gonna be challenging but a classic workflow that we’ve seen a billion times is the editorial workflow for publishing things. You know?
RZ Sure. That’s another—
PF Comes in as a draft. An editor does a quick read on it . . . and rewrites it. A senior editor refines it further and assigns art. The artist goes off and makes the art and it comes back and then finally someone with a control bit is able to say, “Let’s publish that!” And it goes out to the world.
RZ And, look, this—I mean, you know what’s another excellent example is—I don’t know what this workflow looks like but I imagine it’s actually pretty rigid and pretty strict. Like, when you apply for a mortgage—
PF Oh yeah!
RZ It gets submitted and it goes to the bank and then there is a workflow that kicks in: there is the appraisal of the property and there’s photos that have to get taken, and then legal gets involved, and then finance gets involved, and then your credit check has to go through. It is clearly a workflow. And where it is along the chain is a big deal, right? Because what you can do, if it’s done right is enforce accountability. You can actually say, “Hey, Suzy, it’s jammed up on your step, and until you do your part, we can’t move it along.”
PF That’s tricky though, right? Because then if that gets locked like that, and it’s not really easy for someone else to unlock it, I’ve seen whole processes just melt down where they’re like, “Well, you know—”
RZ It’s a phone call, right? I mean, it’s usually like, “Uh, can you just please unlock this for me?”
PF Yeah, it’s 2am and Jim is the file owner. And this was actually—In our world, like Git and Github are the platforms that sort of—Git as a tool and Github as a platform—those are the ways that we address this which is everybody can work on their own version and then there is this ceremony whereby everything becomes one, single point of truth [mm hmm] but all of that history remains. You never lose that history unless you want to. So that’s a very like deep down knitty gritty workflow because you wanna know what every change is that happens to a code base.
RZ Why hasn’t this been solved? Like, why hasn’t this been solved in a . . . in a fairly generic universal way? Because [mm!] an artifact moving along a process where there are multiple participants involved, it’s as important and as monumental as word processing.
PF It is except that really what happens is I think that business cases and business rules getting encoded into software, like the thing that we’re describing—CRM had to be here for us to really talk about workflow. Like, editorial workflow had to become Kanbanized and, you know, turned into cards and embedded into WordPress before people could see it. And actually there is a workflow Kanban view inside of Airtable. Like, we understand instinctually now that processes—Trello’s another example—We understand instinctually that processes can be represented as sets of cards that get moved from A to B to C. And once you get there, you can start to abstract it but I think what’s real is like, people see things in terms of the business function rather than in a more abstract way. And so like, I need a sales tool. There are custom sales tools for pharmaceutical reps, right? Like, Salesforce came along and actually swept up a lot of that and said, “You don’t need that custom tool anymore, just use Salesforce with the, you know—”
RZ It’s a—it’s a software platform, right? Salesforce [that’s right] is its own world that has forked off to address all these very particular use cases.
PF So this gap exists and it’s been intra—cuz this is something you and I—look: I mean let’s just be clear: like, we didn’t just like sit down and say, “Hey! Workflow!” Like, you and I talk about this a lot cuz we’re very interested in these [yeah] gaps in the marketplace. Workflow is absolutely one of them. It’s fascinating to watch over a shoulder . . . as like, “Yeah, boy, that would be a lot easier. Like, maybe they need CRM. Maybe they don’t need more Airtable, maybe they need Salesforce.”
RZ You know, it’s funny, Salesforce was supposed to be empowering . . . and look [mm hmm] who is to question Salesforce’s success? It’s a behemoth but it’s essentially a software platform now.
PF You ever seen Dreamforce though?
RZ Yeah. It’s massive.
PF We gotta go one year. One year we’re gonna go to Dreamforce, you and me.
RZ We do need to go. Dreamforce, for everyone—for those that don’t know—it is Salesforce’s big annual sales conference. But it’s really not just the sales conference. It’s everything—
PF Oh my God!
RZ You can watch the new features and it’s bananas. And look: credit to them to create the platform, not just create a product that addressed one narrow thing but the truth is it isn’t that empowering. We’ve never really had, I don’t think, a podcast dedicated to like, low code or no code or that whole trend around empowering people to do things. Airtable is probably one of the leading products in that movement of giving power to users that otherwise was in the hands of engineers.
PF We’re picking at it here but it is a deeply empowering tool which is why, like, I’m seeing this mutual aid society pick it up.
RZ Yeah, exactly. And usually you’ll have one or two or a handful more technically inclined users who become—who take the wheel cuz it’s very empowering. It feels really good to be the person that can [mmm] actually make these—you know, enable others and empower others, right? And, you know, when Airtable first came out, I thought it was like, “Who wants this? Like, that’s just a small population.” What I failed to see is that the person that creates that table or that series of tables will evangelize it to others. They will go out of their way to tell you, “Use this! I built this for you.”
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And that’s a very powerful thing. I think where you hit a wall is when you talk about workflow, that’s a whole other game with very different social dynamics; very different capabilities, and you start to see Airtable isn’t designed for that. Airtable is designed to hold information in a relatable way. And to give you a lot of power.
PF To put it really bluntly, right? Like, it’s not designed to tell people what to do.
RZ Or to sound alarms when things don’t seem to be moving.
PF That’s right. Whereas Salesforce truly is. Salesforce is like, “Woah! Here’s all your leads! What are you doin’? How are you doin’ today? C’mon login, get to work, get to work, get to work.” And like, that’s our CRM. We use a system to manage our leads at Postlight. Like, it wants to tell me so bad all the time about where things are and what’s happening and what I should be doing next.
RZ That’s right. It’s very oriented around like, “You’ve not done anything! No—nothing’s changed in two long!” And those are mechanisms that tend to bubble up accountability or to amplify accountability and that you don’t see in walls of data, right? Whereas Airtable is not gonna do that. The idea of information going stale or actions going stale is a big deal. This kind of makes me think about the to-do list, the to-do manager. We had the founder of Todoist, which is what I use, [mm hmm] that’s personal accountability. I put ‘em in, I take ‘em out. I put ‘em in, and I check ‘em off. Right? It’s for me to hold myself accountable. Frankly, it’s an organizing tool but the dynamics change dramatically when it’s a group of eight people. And you’re trying to hold each other accountable in a non-hostile way through a tool. That is something that no one’s nailed yet, from a product perspective, in a generic way. It’s been nailed in a—I just insured my car recently, and I used Geico, and the workflow from an end user, I can’t help it, right? I can’t help but see inside and just imagine [mm] the notifications that were flyin’ off as I was finishing each step and then I was in the middle of it, Paul, and there’s no save button, but a day past where I had left the form [mm hmm] and of course, you know, Jeff emailed me saying, “Hey!”
PF Oh yeah!
RZ “You seem to be stuck on Step 3, what’s goin’ on, buddy?” And so all of that is highly, highly customized tooling to make sure the deal goes through, the transaction goes through but no one’s nailed it in a generic way. Airtable is not for an industry, it’s for anything. And no one’s nailed the accountability for anything tool. I think that’s what’s interesting and that’s the opening that’s out there.
PF Like, I mean, that’s—This is something we’re talking about and then we wanna take steps around but we’re giving it to you, everyone, for free. If you think that there’s good things to be done in workflow, let us know and tell us what you think. We always like to leave with advice. What is our advice here for people?
RZ Well, you know, I think there’s two levels: one is go build this tool. Onward! Godspeed. Go build the tool. But that’s a hell of an ask. I think when you’re using these tools, I’m gonna—I’m gonna throw a little jab at—for all the tools I’m signed for by invitation. I don’t sign up for tools anymore. I get signed up because I get invited.
PF [Chuckles] Cuz you run the company and it kind of like, it rolls up to—
RZ There’s a bit of that! There’s a bit of that but I think, what those tools are realizing is that engagement—A very powerful lever for engagement is accountability because [yeah] what they’re saying is, “Hey! I’ve looped you into, you know, Camp—Campfire or whatever.” And if I don’t do it, then other—you know, others are gonna call me out, essentially, and what I’d say is just be wary of these tools. The invite only—and invite sounds like I’m comin’ to a dinner party but it’s not an invite like that. It’s like, “Come do work with me.” My inclination is to talk to people about these things rather than force them in, and then go from there. But the truth is, you know, there is no silver bullet right now cuz there’s no killer tool. Usually we recommend something but it’s just not—they’re not out there. There are tools that are taking a more ambitious view but they’re really hard to use.
PF Yeah, that’s right.
RZ And there’s one called Pipify which is frankly like visual programming [mm hmm]. It doesn’t look like a tool you can just pick up. Airtable’s gone to great lengths to let you, you know, get going without working too hard on learning it.
PF Can I leave us with a kinda wild story? Or not too wild but just sort of like an interesting narrative which is my daughter came up behind me as I was working cuz that’s all I do, and she said, “What is your Twitter avatar? What does it mean?” And what it is is an old—it’s the boot disk for an Amiga computer from the eighties and nineties [mm hmm]. It was the first machine I ever really got to know and I love it and it was also when Twitter was founded I just kind of dropped that in as my avatar and was like, “Ah, to hell with it.” I never have bothered to change it . . . And so she wanted to understand what it meant and it was, you know, with my daughter it’s just—she’s eight and if I can get her to listen without just going, “Boring!” I feel that I’m winning [Rich laughs] but I had to explain to her so many things. I’m like, “That is a disk and you put the disk in there,” and I showed her a picture where [yeah, yeah, yeah] the disk is.
RZ That’s ancient to her.
PF We watched a video of different applications on the Amiga, and it wasn’t just games. And she’s like, “What’s that?” And I’m like, “That’s a word processor.” And I realize like the only frame of reference she has is Google Docs and then I said these words: “Every one of those disks was like a website. You would put it in and it would load it up and the computer was like a browser.” And she was like, “Oh! I get it.” Like she actually kind of understood that that’s how things used to be, that a disk [yeah]—a disk contained a website and then you’d load it. And so like, you know, now we’re in this weird zone where all of these tools—it’s the same as having 75 floppy disks sorta piled up, and, you know, instead of illegally copying them and sharing them around, we email URLs to each other. Conceptually, it’s sort of the same, and to bring it back to workflow and that sort of stuff, right? Like, it just feels like that floppy isn’t in there yet. Like, I don’t have that one in my stack [music fades in].
RZ No, it isn’t and look: that’s not to say it’s a failing. I think, you know, the communication mechanisms that are in place now are just way more powerful than they used to be. You couldn’t build this tool without a network that [hmm, mm hmm] was very wired in and allowed for a lot of pinging and nagging. I mean, God knows I get enough nags and mostly it’s about like, I need to update my OS. You know, I don’t get a lot of productive [no] things.
PF No, I know.
RZ It doesn’t work that way. They come in generically through email and chat but I don’t get like, a good, productive nag. It just hasn’t been nailed yet.
PF Well, look, I mean, some things don’t change! Let’s call it there! And I got some other—I got other things to talk about but let’s call it there, get back to work, there’s a lot goin’ on.
RZ Alright, thanks for listening to—
PF The Postlight Podcaaaast!
RZ The Postlight. Podcast. We are a digital strategy design and engineering firm, pretty much spread out everywhere. We love to talk. We’ve built some great, great experiences and platforms for our clients and, you know, reach out! firstname.lastname@example.org
PF That’s right! And check out our website: postlight.com. Alright, my friends, we will talk to everybody soon. Bye!
RZ Have a great week [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].