I will freely admit that I am a project management, SaaS tool junkie. I love learning new tools and seeing how they work. From Bixly's old, old Automate project, to Trello, to Jira, to Basecamp, to Notion, to Hubspot, to Drip, to GanttPro... You get it. I've played around with a lot of tools. This week, I tried out Airtable. Here are a few of my thoughts.
If I were to summarize Airtable, I would describe it as a database that can be visualized in a variety of ways, including a traditional spreadsheet, kanban, Gantt chart, calendar, and more. Layered on top of this database and visualization tool is the ability to integrate with other common web-based tools through APIs and create automation pathways with that data.
My First Database in Airtable
In order to play around with the tool and see what pragmatic applications there could be as a middle manager who is not a programmer, I decided to try to automate something simple that also falls through the cracks. It's something that I have to do intermittently, not every day, which is why I sometimes miss it: posting a summary of who has time off in a slack channel with the team leads.
Our team requests time off through our HR tool, which has a calendar feed that can be imported into Google Calendar. Which I do, because I'm not a complete barbarian. Sometimes, people have last-minute emergencies or get sick, and I hate to ask them to log in and submit a formal request. These I track manually in a different Google Calendar.
In Airtable, I created a base with two tables. Each table was synced with the two different calendar feeds. From there I created an automation for when a new record is synced to the database to send a Slack message in the appropriate channel with the following details from the record: Event Name (which in this case included the employee's first name, last initial, and type of time off) and the start and end date of the event. It took some troubleshooting. Also, the date format looks HORRENDOUS because it includes time to some type of nanosecond (this is the type of data that a computer cares about but no human would ever want to know). In fact, datetime formats are often a problem with these digital tools. Overall, the process was easy and straightforward, but I do have a lot of experience building these types of automation, so I would be curious to hear how others feel about their product.
1. Before you get started building your database and automations, ensure you have the proper management access to the external tools that will be integrated. In my case, I was already an administrator or owner of the Google Calendar feeds and of our Slack account. If you do not have the proper permissions on the tools, it will create a roadblock.
2. Time will be GMT by default. It would be great if you could set your timezone in your account's settings and have Airtable make the calculation in the background, but that's not possible at this time. There are tutorials on how to add a calculation field in your table to then translate the time to your timezone in another field, which can then be referenced in any automations you may need. I suggest looking these up in case this is an issue for you.
My overall impression of Airtable is that it combines a user-friendly database with an automation tool like Zapier. I can tell that Airtable is flexible and extensible. I can also see a broad application for the tool in basic business processes and think it is a great solution for many businesses. However, I would encourage business owners to take time to think about their whole business process. Mapping everything out in a diagram would be a useful first step to getting a handle on all the interactions along the way. Identifying places where things fall through the cracks or something is tedious and time-consuming are great processes to start with in order to get the most bang for your effort. Building complex databases and automations will be time-consuming, and there will inevitably be bugs and snafus along the way. Understand that this will not be a "set it and forget it" situation. If you want something like Airtable to be really useful in your company, at minimum, you will need someone with part-time hours to be dedicated to its management and upkeep.