NoCode Automation: how automating with Airtable failed

The success of a service business heavily depends on the business’s ability to utilize its manpower. Operational management becomes more complex with an increasing amount of projects in parallel. The consequence: a higher potential error rate! Accordingly, the success and growth of a service provider’s business model are heavily influenced by its internal organization. The default way is to solve this manually from case to case.  (For example communication via. Slack, time tracking in google sheets). Well, that’s not quite efficient. NoCode automation seems to be the solution. 

How does a builder solve this? Software! Resource-saving use of manpower is heavily driven by having the right tools and processes. But what a pity!  We have tried so many dedicated tools for more efficient time tracking, capacity planning, work schedule, etc. None filled our software-loving hearts with joy.

Oh dear, it’s always the same! For us, the adaption cycles of these tools always follow this pattern:

The path of Disillusionment

  1. They look good at the surface, you decide to go for it
  2. Onboarding takes quite some time
  3. You start using it
  4. Requirements change
  5. The tool is not flexible enough for the new needs
  6. Then you start adjusting your process to the tool
  7. You encounter stagnation in your development and this justifies starting to look for other solutions

So, keep searching. As Builders, the ultimate solution seems obvious: a flexible self-programmed solution, like the one we offer to our customers. However, our company size does not justify the effort to create it. The opportunity costs are too high to develop a custom tool.

Then there was this light at the end of the tunnel: Airtable. A flexible, no-code tool, being part spreadsheet, part database with predesigned templates. Finger licking good! We are big fans of no-code, even if we rarely use it in customer projects.

But that’s a topic for an upcoming article. Sign up your Email below and stay tuned!

So here is our case with Airtable: We started with automated time tracking and then developed more functionality step by step.

How we use NoCode automation

Every employee can:

  • Track working hours
  • Get information about the work schedule
  • See how much time was spent on which project
  • Check their vacation days

This data is also used for client billing and calculating employee wages. A project controlling table automatically shows us how much we worked per project and how much we already billed. Now that’s a cash flow! Through grouping of the raw data into time intervals, we even get an overview of individual sprints. This is very helpful for the work schedule, which we plan in an Airtable calendar view. Furthermore, tracked data and the work schedule enable us to analyze deviations in terms of estimation vs. reality in fulfillment.

That sounds good, right? So, is it the end of the story? Unfortunately, nope! The more features we added, the more limitations of Airtable became apparent. Without workarounds, we wouldn’t have been able to automate our workflow entirely. The most crucial limitation: no granular user permissions.

Let’s take a closer look at this case:

  1. Record A contains work schedule information for employee A.
  2. B contains this type of information for employee B.
  3. We only want to allow employee A to see and confirm the information in record A.
  4. Employee B, however, should only view but not change record B.

In other words – Each employee should see individually how much they have worked. This is certainly possible with Airtable, but it is cumbersome with an increasing number of employees. You have to create individual views for each employee. #Laborious.

Nevertheless, so far so good. The situation is different if the individual views are supposed to be edited, for example, to confirm the working days. Then vanilla Airtable is reaching its limits:

  1. Everyone would need an Airtable account for this purpose because guest viewers are not able to edit at all.
  2. Even then, the permissions are not granular. For example, the employee can still see the views of the others.

These factors are on the one hand costly and on the other hand, lead to data protection problems regarding employee information. To solve this, we tried the third-party tool miniextensions. It allows writing operations in individual views. Problem solved? Not quite! The UX suffers from the integration. The functions became much slower, and you need an external link to see a copy on the mineexntesion domain.

So the journey begins again. Sadly Airtable also took the path of disillusionment. Again no NoCode automation that works perfectly. Next on our list is retool, but this requires development capacity. Opportunity cost, is that you knocking at our door?