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Monday, December 12, 2005

Brian Dunning
Software Venture Consultant
Technical Editor, FileMaker Advisor magazine

This week's interview is with Brian Dunning. Brian has been a key figure in the FileMaker community for many years now. Since 1997, he's been a technical editor for FileMaker Advisor magazine. At the 2001 FileMaker Developer Conference, he was presented with the FileMaker Excellence Award. He is a software venture capitalist, and is involved in several companies, including Totwise (preschool and daycare management software) and Zipwise Software (a provider of ZIP code lookup data and related products). He's the mastermind behind ChartMaker Pro, a collection of techniques that allow developers to generate several different types of charts and graphs using FileMaker's built-in features. He's also a published author. If Brian doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will!

How did you get started in IT?
Back in high school, around 1980, we had some Apple II computers in the lab, and a few of us learned how to use them after school. A friend of my dad's was an Amway salesman, and we decided to create the first software program for Amway people. It was called Amacalc, and was written in Applesoft Basic. Anyone who used that may remember how you could read and write data to text files as a sort of poor man's database. So I spent an entire summer as a punk teenager, holed up in my room with my Franklin Ace clone computer writing Amacalc. It never really got off the ground, but it did plant some important seeds, as vertical industry software turned out to be my ultimate profession.


How long have you been using FileMaker, and how did you get started with it?
It's a story that's shared by so many FileMaker developers. From 1990 to 1995 my brother and I ran Head Gear, a sportswear company that we founded. We needed software to manage production, purchasing, sales, and commissions, and couldn't find commercial software that wasn't missing one or more important features we needed.

Somehow I got ahold of FileMaker II, or maybe the original FileMaker Pro, and cobbled something together. It was horrible since I had no formal training in relational database design. (I'd taken Cobol in college, how useless was that?) But it did the job, well enough anyway; more importantly, it hammered home the point that I enjoyed software more than I enjoyed sportswear.

Head Gear was an important turning point for me, because it led us to ultimately design our "Desktop Trade Show" CD-ROM that we sold to other players in the industry, and that finally became Buylink, a multi-million dollar worldwide service that was divested in 2002.


In what ways are you using FileMaker today?
FileMaker is the ultimate way to quickly build great software. There's hardly anything you can't do with it, relatively quickly, easily, and cheaply.

My principal business, which I call Software Venture Consulting, is working with industry leaders to build a software product to address a need within their industry. In this role, I spend a fair amount of time evaluating presentations and ideas that are often pitched at me. If I say yes to two or three times a year, that's a great year and a busy one.

My involvement depends on the stage of the product or idea, and can include forming a new software company; investing time, expertise, or capital; hiring or management; or even just being on the advisory board. My favorite level of involvement, which I've been fortunate enough to enjoy on several occasions, is where the product is of small enough scope that I can provide all that's needed simply by cracking open FileMaker and personally doing the software development myself. As a friend of mine recently said, it feels like Mozart must have felt playing the piano.

I'm much more interested in equity than in consulting so it's very important that my new partner brings as much to the table as possible. My business is the software and the product management. It's up to the partner to support the other end of the bridge: the channel marketing and the exit strategy. I need to be convinced that my partner is the best person in the industry to make that happen. If so, we're a team that can't be beat.


You offer a course called "ToMarket" for people interested in selling the FileMaker-based application that they've developed. Where did the idea for ToMarket come from?
Like all good ideas, it came from standing in the shower one day. Buylink had been incredibly successful getting over 20,000 of our companies to use this one particular product written in FileMaker Developer. It was essentially "power-listing" software for the Buylink web site, much like the software that's available today for eBay - and we'd learned all the lessons about features, support, security, sales, and marketing. At the time I was putting all that experience to great use on some new products in other industries, and at the same time I was trying to think of a new topic for the upcoming FileMaker Developer Conference. It was like the apple falling on Newton's head.


What are some of the "cooler" FileMaker-based applications that you've seen over the years?
For a while I was obsessed with graphics in FileMaker: filling repeating container fields with blobs of different colors. I made a topographic mapping application once that was my all-time favorite. I also made a FileMaker version of the electronic game Simon. I remember seeing some electronic music sequencers written in FileMaker, though I don't remember the authors. The early days of FileMaker Pro were great because you could do innovative stuff and people would say "I can't believe that's done in FileMaker!" These days that's a lot harder - plug-ins let you "cheat" too easily, and FileMaker's been around longer so more people have seen more things. I really love the challenge of doing something amazing with a very limited toolset, like we had in the old days.


What do you like best about your job?
Easy to answer: the freedom. Even though I budget my time in advance in great detail, everything that goes on my calendar is something I choose. I choose the products I want to develop, I choose the people I want to partner with, I choose how to best apportion my days.

My encouragement to anyone is to calendar your fun time first, and fit everything else around that schedule, rather than vice versa. I play in a couple of indoor volleyball leagues and also play at the beach. That time is carved in stone months in advance. So is family time. I never work one second after 5:00pm and never look at a computer on weekends. We're able to take vacations whenever the kids' school schedules permit. And once in a while I like to be impulsive, undisciplined, and irresponsible: sometimes my brother and I will take off with no warning and go sailing. My office phone rings and rings, and I laugh and laugh. Maybe I shouldn't admit that in a public forum...


You've been a technical editor for FileMaker Advisor magazine since 1997. How did you get involved in the magazine?
In the magazine's early days, they were starved for good material, and it was easy to get submissions published. Jeff Gagne, then the CSA liaison, showed off a mockup issue at a regional meeting and I immediately sent in proposals. I started with an article on charts & graphs based on my ChartMaker Pro product, and after one or two articles they asked me to be a Contributing Editor to help weed through the growing number of submissions. Somewhere along the line they converted me into a Technical Editor, which means that I get to check articles by new authors for technical accuracy and seat-of-the-pants "elegance" of the solutions submitted. We like to find articles about techniques that are truly useful to many readers, not oddball stuff, and that represent the best way (or one of the best ways) to solve the problem at hand.

From my perspective, the magazine is a way to stay sharp technically, but it also channels many new business leads my way. I try to always stay on people's minds as the go-to guy if you're considering building a product to address a particular industry need, and to that end, my visibility through the magazine has proven invaluable over the years. 


What are your favorite new features of FileMaker 8?
They really hit it out of the park on this one. I love the script variables: they make me dance the Macarena atop my desk. I love the tool tips and the custom menus: they're so essential for software to sell its own usability within the first 30 seconds of a customer's evaluation. FileMaker 8 is the first release that addressed the needs of software designed for the vertical market.


If you could add one new feature to the next version of FileMaker, what would it be?
Getting rid of the damn application window on Windows. The way FileMaker 8 windows work on a Mac is perfect.


What's your favorite tool, plugin, or technique for developing FileMaker databases?
I'm still, after about two years, enjoying the honeymoon with the relationship graph. I'm of the "anchor-buoy" school (aka many other names, no doubt), where each layout context has its own TOG consisting of an "anchor" TO for the current table attached to "buoy" TO's for every kind of related data the anchor might need. In many ways it's a throwback to pre-7 relational design, you just need to get the E-R diagram mentality out of your mind when thinking of the relationship graph. So, though it may sound dumb, my favorite tool for FileMaker 8 databases is making my anchor-buoys in the relationship graph.


What advice do you have for someone that is just getting started with FileMaker?
I frequently hear from people who are considering quitting their "real" job and becoming a full-time independent FileMaker consultant, and they want to know the best way to get started. I always give the same advice. Don't risk starving yourself and your family by jumping into deep water amid much bigger fish. Unless you already have more business than you can handle lined up for the foreseeable future - and few new consultants do - then don't start as an independent. Instead, work for one of the large, established FileMaker consulting firms. You'll always have work; you'll learn the business, technology, and most importantly the people. Work hard for a couple of years, go to some conferences, and then you'll be ready to jump into the deep water and stay afloat.


What technology has most changed your life?
I fear I would reveal myself if I admitted that it's DirecTiVo, so I won't say that; and maybe Apple's rumored media center will change that anyway. And I also won't say the Internet because that's too obvious. Neither will I say FileMaker because, to paraphrase Lloyd Bridges in Airplane, that's just what you'll be expecting me to say. I might say Audi's Quattro IV advanced all-wheel-drive system. I might say the one-touch pushbutton tacking of the Raymarine 4000 Autopilot. But I think I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the technology I hope to soon change my life will be Porsche's upcoming VTG variable turbine geometry. I like to keep my priorities straight.


You're also a bit of an explorer. There are some interesting videos on your site that chronicle some of your adventures (to places like Area 51, Anza Borrego, and Death Valley). Tell us about your experience in the Anza-Borrego desert in May of this year.
You're talking about the "Mysterious Desert Flying Objects" video on my page at http://www.briandunning.com/vibrations/. Like the "Gravitational Anomaly" video above it, this one is something of a tongue-in-cheek joke. We actually watched this event for some minutes, and it was far more dramatic when it first started, before it occurred to me to grab my camera. And I freely confess that it did take us a little while to figure out what was happening. I'd seen this kind of thing many times before, but never with so many subjects moving up and down so violently. They were like balls in a lottery machine when the episode began - too bad it toned down so much by the time I started filming.

I really enjoyed making the few short films on my web site, and plan many more. I'm building a better Jeep and assembling better AV equipment. Man oh man - where were iMovie and Video Podcasts when I was in high school and college???


Tell us about "Strapping Young Lads."
This started as a collection of miscellaneous sketches that flew off the top of my head around 10 years ago. There were a dozen or so, they were no more than a page long, and I wrote them purely to amuse myself and never had any thought of doing anything with them. One day a lightning bolt struck and I saw how they fit together, and so over the course of about two years, cobbled them into the book that it is today. It's a farcical time-traveling adventure. I really like the characters, who drove the original sketches.

For grins I put it up on one of the free "print on demand" web sites that offers books for sale through Amazon, etc. I never had any thought of taking it seriously, and certainly not of spending any time or effort trying to market it. Due to the disorganized, organic nature of its birth, I've always felt that there are some weak points in the story, without a doubt. Nevertheless, I started getting emails, people posted Amazon reviews, some kid in Australia turned it into his high school film project, and a literary agent wrote me and asked to represent it. And that's where it sits now.

Will there be any more chapters to this story? We'll have to wait and see.


Do you still write fiction?
After a long dry spell of business distractions, I'm finally forcing some creative time back into my schedule. In particular I'm giving myself a present for my 40th birthday, which is to complete a project I've always wanted to do. Eventually it will wind up on my web site. Stay tuned.


Thanks, Brian!

Be sure to visit Brian's Web site at http://www.briandunning.com.

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