The Airtable Master

By Dave Bayless

Gareth Pronovost of GAP Consulting is the expert I turn to for help with Airtable, the no-code database application. If you are hosting a membership community, you should be considering how to use Airtable and other no-code tools to streamline and automate your workflows. I spoke with Gareth about process automation, the no-code movement, his Airtable Mastermind community, and working through the suck when creating content that demonstrates your consulting expertise.

The No-code Specialist

I discovered Gareth Pronovost, the founder of GAP Consulting, when I stumbled across one of his over 200 freely available videos on YouTube. GAP Consulting provides Airtable and automation consulting services to small and medium-sized service businesses. As Gareth puts it,

We help our clients create no-code apps at a fraction of the cost [of traditional development] so that they can organize, automate, and streamline their businesses.

I’m a long-time user of no-code apps, and I am pretty experienced with Airtable. Nevertheless, I had a very specific question about webhooks, and Gareth’s video provided the answer. I was so impressed with the depth of his Airtable knowledge, I joined his Airtable Mastermind group. (I was also, of course, curious to see how he was cultivating his community.)

What’s Up with No-code?

As Gareth says,

The allure of no-code is you don’t have to know how to code in order to build something.

The phrase has reached buzz-worthy status in the last year:

Not a New Problem

However, there is nothing new about the concept. Many observers date the term to 1981 when Application Development without Programmers by James Martin and Richard Murch was published. In the preface, the authors noted,

The number of programmers available per computer is shrinking so fast that most computers in the future must be put to work at least in part without programmers.

Even then, the problem was decades old. The people who had a deep understanding of business processes and problems weren’t usually the people who had deep programming skills.

Early programming languages relied on obscure mathematical syntax. By the late 1950s, compiler technology enabled higher-level languages such as FORTRAN and COBOL, which incorporated more accessible syntax and broadened the pool of programmers. By the mid-1990s, concurrent with the emergence of the Internet, even more accessible languages such as Python, Visual Basic, and JavaScript became popular.

’Programming

Nevertheless, the demand for programming continued to outpace the supply of skilled programmers. Consequently, application development remained a slow and expensive process reserved for large corporations and well-funded startups.

The Emergence of No-code Tools

By the early 2000s, Web 2.0 was gaining traction. Interactive websites that leveraged user-created content such as Wikipedia (2001) and Facebook (2004) came the fore. Very importantly, WordPress launched in 2003.

WordPress was a game-changer because it allowed people to build interactive websites using configurable themes, plugins, and extensions. Although a basic understanding of HTML, PHP, JavaScript, and CSS was useful, it wasn’t strictly necessary. While WordPress was preceded by the no-code Geocities website builder by 9 years, WordPress was suitable for business applications including e-commerce.

Today, WordPress accounts for 65% of the content management system (CMS) market according to W3Techs. High-volume sites such as TechCrunch, Wired, and Mashable are built on WordPress (as is this website). While WordPress dominates much of enterprise-scale website development, platforms such as Squarespace (2003), Shopify (2006), Weebly (2006), and Wix (2006) have made it even easier for individuals and small organizations to create sophisticated, highly functional websites.

The No-code Movement Accelerates

About 10 years ago, we saw another surge in no-code innovation. Zapier (automation) was launched in 2011. Airtable (databases), Integromat (automation), Webflow (website builder), and Bubble (visual programming language) followed in 2012. For several years, I used Knack (databases), which was founded in 2014. These, along with many others, have opened the door to fast, relatively inexpensive application development without relying on programmers.

Nice history lesson. So what?

Cultivating and managing an online community is administratively intensive. To avoid being overwhelmed by messaging, scheduling, accounting, and other tasks, resist the temptation to delegate—to throw bodies at the problem. Instead,

  • Design effective workflows
  • Automate repetitive tasks that don’t benefit from human intervention

A workflow is a sequence of tasks that process a set of data. Your members’ names, profile information, email addresses, event dates and time, polls, and Zoom meeting links are common elements of a dataset relevant to a community. Write out your workflows and examine them. How might they be designed better? What tasks might be consolidated or eliminated? Are you copying information from one data source to another? You can accomplish much simply by understanding your workflows and asking yourself how they might be improved.

Even if tasks are completed manually, technology can be quite useful in managing your tasks. Checklists are damned useful. Don’t underestimate the cognitive load that goes into trying to keep track of fiddly details. I use Todoist. I also make heavy use of checklist templates in Trello. If you want to get fancier, a project management tool such as Asana, Monday.com, Hive, or Wrike might be up your alley.

Sometimes, though, your workflows extend to people outside of your team. In the context of a community, we need our members to be able to complete certain tasks. A bespoke web application might be called for, and no-code tools and platforms put such applications within reach.

Data Storage, Automation, and Interfaces

Gareth told me,

In order to build a solution to optimize a workflow, we really need to talk about three fundamental pieces…Number one is a way to store your information…Number two is a way to automate the process…The third element is a way for people to interact with that data.

Gareth’s application development toolbox includes the following:

  • Airtable—primarily for data storage. However, Airtable continues to add automation, integration, and user-interface capabilities. It’s the foundation.
  • Zapier or Integromat—to automate workflows and connect/integrate with other web applications. At last count, Zapier offered connections to over 3,000 web applications. Integromat offers fewer integrations but more out-of-the box flexibility regarding automation logic.
  • Softr or Stacker—to build user interfaces such as client or member portals that leverages an Airtable back-end.

For instance, I created a low-code application to automate feedback to users of the Professional Narratives Readiness Assessment using the following tools:

  • The user interface is a Typeform embedded on a WordPress page.
  • Airtable serves as the database.
  • Zapier (augmented by 7 lines of Python code) automates the workflow.
  • A personalized feedback document is created using Formstack Documents.
  • Gmail is used to send a copy of the feedback document to the user.

One of our clients uses a particularly complex assessment form in their consulting practice. It used to take hours and hours to collect, tabulate, score, and provide feedback to even a few users. It was an expensive process that discouraged use of the assessment, notwithstanding its usefulness. Now, our client’s users receive personalized feedback within moments of submitting an assessment. The process is fast, inexpensive, and can be used more frequently as a consequence, which allows our client to add more value to theirs.