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Friday, November 1, 2002 VOLUME 1 ISSUE 9  
Contact the Editors:
Bill Warner: Compuniq@aol.com
Jim Chapman: jec@iowatelecom.net
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Interview with Frances Peake
Interview with Frances Peake
by Jim Chapman

Q: Francie, your name has been associated with Alpha Software for a long time. Can you tell us when you first heard of Alpha Software?

In 1986 I responded to a Help Wanted ad for a technical support position at Alpha Software Corporation. The first time I heard of Alpha was when I went for the interview. I didn't have a computer background but had used some dBase in my previous job. I started at Alpha just before they released their first dBase-compatible database, Alpha Three.

By the time I left Alpha in 1990 I was Manager of Technical Support and Quality Assurance. It's been 12 years but I still keep in touch with many of the great people I worked with there.

Q: I have to admit that I have always been a little envious of technical support personnel. I've always viewed them as having all the 'inside' scoop, access to the developers, and knowing all the nooks and crannies of the software. Is this the reality?

Maybe not all the inside scoop, but we did rely on the programmers for insight into the inner workings of the software. They were always willing to help us as long as we had made an effort to test and document the problem before approaching them. As a Tech Support person, you spend 40 hours a week answering a wide variety of questions, so you do get an excellent feel for the software.

One of the great things about Alpha is that they are very tuned in to the users' concerns and preferences. They monitor these through Tech Support feedback and through the Support Message Board on www.alphasoftware.com. Alpha is also very forthcoming when a bug or "missing feature" is discovered; they release software patches very quickly. It's no secret that Alpha is a small company with a big vision. I hope that as Alpha Five takes off, which it certainly deserves to do, they will continue to keep their ear to the ground.

Q: Technical support has changed a great deal since you were involved with it at Alpha Software. Can you give us a feel for what it was like in the trenches? Were you able to solve most of the issues that were presented to you?

Well, this was the late 1980's. My first computer was an IBM XT with 2 floppy drives. When we came out with Alpha Three, I got a 5 MB hard drive. But I couldn't complain because one of the programmers, Pete Lyons, who did Tech Support when Alpha Software first began, used to tell us a story. Like your grand parents would tell you, "We used to walk 3 miles to school in bare feet," Pete told us how when he started he didn't even have a computer! When customers called for tech support, he would look up the answer in the manual - quietly so they wouldn't hear the pages flipping. If he couldn't find it, he would run down the hall to the programmer, who actually did have a computer.

When I started doing Tech Support most people didn't have faxes and no one had e-mail or any way to send a file (except by mail). When a customer called me to describe their problem, I would close my eyes and let them paint a picture for me of their report that wouldn't print, or whatever it was that they saw on the screen. Sometimes I could work from that. Otherwise I would put the appropriate 5 " floppy into my XT and get ready to step through the problem with the customer.

Tech Support is a challenging job, but I really enjoyed helping the users. With little information about the problem or the person you are talking to, you have to make a quick assessment and start troubleshooting. It is very satisfying when you solve the problem and very frustrating when you can't. For the user, of course, those sentiments are magnified times 10.

Q: What other products did you support besides Alpha Three?

There was Electric Desk, an integrated database, spreadsheet and word processor, what today would be called a "suite". It was a pretty good. It came in a version for the IBM PC Jr. that ran off of 2 cartridges -- very finicky. Electric Desk was further developed into AlphaWorks and later sold to Lotus, which marketed it under the name of LotusWorks.

There's another software program that was written at Alpha that few people know about, "Pizza Three". When I worked at Alpha, Friday was Pizza Day. Everyone would put in a couple of bucks and we'd order pizza. Some people started to complain that they never got their favorite topping. They suspected that the people who called in the order were simply ordering their personal favorite.

So that same programmer who walked to school in his bare feet, Pete Lyons, wrote "Pizza Three". He put in each person's "vote" for toppings and then every week Pizza Three would democratically select the toppings to order based on who was eating that week. It would select one pizza randomly to make sure that those who liked the less-popular toppings such as onion and anchovy would have a chance of getting theirs. Pizza Three was a terrific program from Alpha Software. I hear they're working on an upgrade, Pizza Five version 4.6 (not to be confused with Alpha Four version 6 or Alpha Five version 5).

Q: I was introduced to Alpha Software with Alpha Four version 2. Can you tell us what Alpha Three was like?

Alpha Three was flat-file, not relational. Otherwise it looked a lot like Alpha Four does. What was innovative about Alpha Three was that it supported the dBase file format. At the time, Ashton-Tate was to PC databases what Microsoft is today. DBase had a huge percent of the market, but business people and other non-programmers found it very difficult to use. Alpha Three provided a way for these people to use dBase files in a user-friendly environment.

Alpha Four added the ability to link databases (to use Alpha Four's terminology for a table) in a set. This was also innovative because sets made it so much easier to create and manage relationships than other database products and languages did.

Q: Alpha Four has had a tremendous life for a software product. Even though 'DOS is Dead', it is still running literally thousands of small business's across the country, and with Alpha Software's latest version, Alpha Four version 7, it is still running strong. Each version has its strengths and weaknesses. Do you have a 'favorite' version of Alpha Four, and why?



My favorite version is Alpha Four version 6. It really represents the pinnacle of Alpha Four's maturity. But I really feel that anyone who still depends on Alpha Four, even version 7, should be implementing their plan to migrate to Alpha Five now.

Q: Francie, you have subsequently become an independent consultant and database developer. Tell us about that move.

I had a role model, Sherry Martin. She was one of the few independent consultants who were associated with Alpha at the time, and the only woman, I believe. I used to think, "Someday I'd like to have my own consulting business". My mother has her own business too, and I really think that helped me to be realistic about what to expect: long hours, a lot of responsibility and different hats to wear. But there is a lot of independence too, which is very rewarding.

When I moved down to Florida, I was getting referrals from Alpha and from that I built Peake Database Associates. In the past 5 year's I've taken on more application development and widened my scope to include a few other technologies as well as Alpha Five.

My favorite part of the job is still working with the users, understanding their needs and developing solutions that work for them. These days that means I am the one who interfaces with the client and gets the project off the ground. When it comes to the actual development, I have found some trusted programmers and resource people to help behind the scenes. I am trying to get away from being the only one who has to do everything. I want to be able to provide excellent service to my clients and it's easier to accomplish that when I have help.

Q: Are there any issues you have encountered working in a predominately male profession?

I haven't thought a lot about that, but it must have some effect on clients and potential clients, at least upon first impression. Some female clients have commented that they have been condescended to by male programmers and technicians, and that they felt freer to ask me questions without risk of embarrassment. Come to think of it, some male clients have said that too. I don't expect people to know what I know. If they did, they wouldn't be calling me. I ask a lot of questions too, about their business processes, and I think my questions show that I am thoughtful and experienced.

Q: Do you specialize in any particular segment of database development?

If you are asking if I target any particular industry, the answer is no. I have developed applications for a wide variety of businesses.

Some people might think it is difficult to go into a new type of business and learn how they do things. First of all, that's what keeps my job interesting after 12 years. Second, with experience you realize that database problems are universal. Solutions are transferable, at least in a general sense. What differs is how you apply the solutions in different settings. In some ways having exposure to a lot of different industries has kept my mind open to more creative solutions.

Q: If you were to categorize your clientele in terms of size, i.e.: small, medium and large, where would you say the bulk of your consulting is done?

Most of my clients are businesses and organizations with between 10 and 100 employees. When a larger business hires me, I am usually contacted by a department manager or a "revolutionary" who is leading a movement to convert the company to Alpha Five!

Corporate IT departments typically focus on maintaining hardware, networks and company-wide applications. There are lots of unmet database needs within individual departments. This is an area where both Alpha Software and Peake Database Associates stand to make headway.

Q: You have teamed up with Susan Bush and are holding seminars around the country to help Alpha Four users to make the transition to Alpha Five. Can you tell us how this enterprise came about?

We were inspired by a couple of Alpha Four users who attend the Database User Group meeting in Ft. Lauderdale. These users felt left behind while the rest of us bantered about Alpha Five. Susan noted that what the Alpha Four people needed was some basic training to make them comfortable with the Alpha Five way of doing things. That's how we came up with the "Get Outta DOS" Seminars.

We quickly realized how many people were looking for Alpha Five training, and many of them had never used Alpha Four. So now we are offering the "Get Into Alpha Five!" Seminars. Our new seminar is for anyone who wants to learn Alpha Five, regardless of previous Alpha experience. The Chicago seminar we held in October filled up quickly, so anyone interested in receiving information about future seminars should join our mailing list at http://www.peakedatabase.com/seminar_mailing_list.htm.

Q: Frances, approximately how many seminars do you and Susan put on in a year's time?

Three seminars per year in different parts of the country. That isn't a lot, but I think this is the first time any course in Alpha Five has been offered on an ongoing basis. We have enough students for more, but Susan and I both have our businesses to run and the seminars take time to organize and prepare. We haven't scheduled it yet, but we are talking about having the next one on the West Coast in February or March.

Q: I have got to admit, I was something of a holdout on transitioning to Alpha Five. Alpha Four was 'part of my family'. If you had a chance, in a sentence or two, to tell all the Alpha Four users out there, why they should consider trying Alpha Five version 5, what would you say?

There are two reasons, a positive one and a negative one. The first is that Alpha Five version 5 opens up all sorts of new possibilities for working with their data. The second is that it's dangerous to rely on a DOS program when hardware manufactures and operating system developers no longer care to support DOS.

Q: Can you tell us about your own transition to Alpha Five?

I had been working with Alpha Four for years and I took those years of experience for granted. It was a shock when I sat down to use Alpha Five for the first time. I had to get past the differences in terminology and appearance. Just like I tell everyone who's planning to move from Alpha Four to Alpha Five, "It looks different on the outside, but inside it's 100% Alpha." Alpha Four skills are transferable to Alpha Five. Once I got rolling in Alpha Five, I loved it.

I made my transition in the early days of Alpha Five. The product has really matured since then. Learning and using Alpha Five is much easier now.

Q: You consult and develop in both Access and Alpha Five, do you not?

Yes, I started working in Access about 5 years ago. I had been thinking it would be a good idea to diversify my skills. Then a good client of mine decided that he really wanted to convert his Alpha Four application to Access instead of Alpha Five. He had his own reasons and I respected that. Then he made me an offer I couldn't refuse: He hired me to write his new application realizing that I would have to learn Access from scratch! I really appreciate this opportunity he gave me, because I think that my "cross training" in Alpha and Access has helped me with both of them.

Q: This is a loaded question, but I've got to ask. Which do you prefer to work with?

Everyone asks me that! Talk about a difficult transition. Access approaches databases very differently from Alpha. I had to forget what I knew about Alpha in order to learn Access. Now that I am very comfortable in Access, I can honestly say that I like working with both of them.

That said, I do have to tell you that the learning curve for Access is much steeper. There are so many things that you can do in Alpha Five by "flipping a switch" that require you to write at least a few lines of code in Access. That's not so bad if you like programming and know what to write. Sometimes it just seems silly, what you have to do to duplicate an Alpha Five feature in Access. Why not just flip that switch?

Q: Are you consulting on any other software solutions besides Alpha Five and Access?

I have done some web database development with the help of a web site designer and a programmer. The tools for developing databases that can be run from a browser are limited and cumbersome compared with what you can do in Alpha Five. This will change.

I am making a foray into the client-server world with a SQL database that one of my clients wants developed. This will expand the services that Peake Database Associates can offer. Client-server technology will come into play in Alpha's future products too.

Q: Alpha Software has just released version 5. The Web Application Server version of Alpha Five is in beta, and there is talk of a release next year of an Alpha Five ADO client version. What are you thoughts about the current version 5 and its not-yet released siblings?

I am very excited about the whole thing. It's wonderful to see Alpha going for it, already hard at work on some great new offerings. I am already thinking about how I will take advantage of them. In the meantime, I would like to see Version 5 get the recognition it deserves.

When you think about all the software products and software companies that have come and gone, or been swallowed up by larger companies, it really is a testament to Alpha that they are still there and going strong. Selwyn and Richard Rabins are on a mission to make database products that are easy to use but powerful. What they've accomplished recently with Alpha Five Version 5 is truly a monument to their mission.

Q: Version 5 has so many new features and capabilities it is almost mind-boggling. Francie, can you tell us which new features you are especially excited about?

The biggest hit with my clients so far has been the Print to PDF feature. Being based in Miami, I have a lot of clients who do business internationally. Up to now they have been mailing or faxing reports out of the country, so the ability to send these documents easily as e-mail attachments represents huge savings for them. Other favorites have been the spell checker and Integrated Backup and Restore.

As a developer I am thrilled about Action Scripting and the Dialog Genie. You see, I am an "application developer" but I don't consider myself to be a "programmer". With Alpha Five Version 5, I can put together a sophisticated application without writing Xbasic. I have taken note, however, of the fact that even Xbasic is easier to use, thanks to improvements in the editor.

Here's one more: Creating a user interface that is visually attractive and consistent in style takes time. Version 5's new colors, styles and style sheets make it easier to accomplish this.

Q: At the past two Alpha Five developer conferences, you have put yourself out there as an advocate for "Developing Applications without Programming." Can you tell us why?

Part of it is my non-programming background, but most of it really comes from my long association with Alpha Software. Back in the dBase days Alpha Three and Alpha Four proved that you really could solve most database problems without programming. Alpha Four was touted as the "Database for Non-Programmers" and marketed to business users.

Alpha Software has given a lot of attention to Alpha Five's Xbasic programming language. Look at Version 5 and you will see that as they continue to build up Xbasic they have also built a fantastic user interface for it, Action Scripting. Action Scripting allows you to automate your applications without writing Xbasic. There are a lot of talented Alpha Five Xbasic programmers out there, but even they are saying, "I don't have to write as much code anymore."

Another reason I support the idea of developing applications without programming is customer demand. My clients just want a database that works for them, as quickly as possible. Many would also like to use the applications I've developed for them as a take-off point for adding their own reports and so on. It is easier for them to do this if they can follow an Action Script instead of wading through programming code.

In the Alpha Five seminars we've been teaching, there is a high level of interest in developing applications but not a lot of desire, or time, to learn a programming language. These are very smart business people who know what they want to accomplish. We show them how you can use Action Scripting to tie together the forms, reports and saved operations that they have created and put them on a menu for their users. Then we show them how to create a shortcut to start their application and load their main menu, and they are off and running. All without programming.

The fact that you can do this really is a big selling point Alpha Five has over its competitors. I've looked, and I was hard-pressed to find things you couldn't accomplish with Alpha Five version 5's Action Script Editor. They really filled in a lot of gaps that existed in previous versions of Action Scripting. You can learn Xbasic by studying the code generated by the script actions. Someone who knows Xbasic may find it faster to write code in some instances, such as when looping or creating a reusable function would save redundant steps.

There's one thing I'd like to add to this discussion. There is no substitute for taking the time to plan a good database design, taking into account the users' needs and skill level, and being consistent and systematic in your development approach. These steps are important for everyone to follow, programmer or not.

Q: Not too many years ago, there was a commercial desktop database program on every street corner. Today there are few left standing, (Alpha, Access, and Filemaker?? Q&A, Approach, FoxPro,). Polish up your crystal ball and tell us where the desktop database world is going?

In my crystal ball I see the headlines "Alpha Five: Database of the Year!", "Alpha Five eclipses Microsoft Access" and "Can anything stop Alpha Five?".

Unfortunately I don't have a crystal ball. But my best guess would acknowledge the same trend that Alpha has. We are going toward using browsers to access our databases. Our applications will reside on a server somewhere and our data can be stored in almost any file format. There are already lots of browser-based applications in use, but right now the development tools we take for granted in Alpha Five are not available. I am planning for the time when they are, but in the meantime I seek practical solutions for today.

Q. Francie, what do you do when you're not working?

I admit it. I am a workaholic. I really love my job. However, you can't just sit at your computer all the time. One of the best things about Florida is that you can go outside all year round. I'm even used to the hot summers now and prefer them to the endless months of cold we used to have in Boston.

Something that's become very important to me is a volunteer job I've had for 8 years. I am in a program called "Listen to Children" that operates in the public schools. Volunteer "Listeners" are assigned to 2 - 4 children for the duration of the school year. We meet individually with each child once a week at the school, and our job is simply to listen.

I volunteer in a high school, so you can imagine that these teenagers have a lot on their minds. The program is confidential and non-judgmental. Unlike mentors, we don't give advice. We encourage them to identify their feelings and help them come up with their own solutions to problems. It is a real test of understanding and patience. I really love it, and it is an opportunity to open up my mind in a completely different way than I do the rest of the week. It has also helped me to become a better listener with my clients!




Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Frances Peake has a B.A. in History from Tufts University in Massachusetts. She became interested in computers in the mid-1980's while working at a historical society in Boston. She was employed by Alpha Software Corporation from 1986 to 1990 as a Technical Support Representative and then as Manager of Technical Support and Quality Assurance. In 1990 Frances relocated to Miami, Florida and began working as an independent consultant. Her company, Peake Database Associates, specializes in Alpha Five and Microsoft Access database development, training and support. Frances co-teaches the Get Outta DOS Alpha Four to Alpha Five transition Seminar and the Get Into Alpha Five! Seminar with Susan Bush. Frances was a speaker at the 2000 and 2002 Alpha Five Developer's Conference. She has also led the South Florida Database User Group since 1990.

You can reach Frances at frances@peakedatabase.com
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