An Interview with Peter Greulich Vice President and General Manager of Gunther Engineering, Inc.
Q: Peter, you use Alpha Software in your business if I understand correctly. Can you tell us a little about your business?
Gunther Engineering, Inc. is a family owned business and we provide land surveying and civil engineering services. Most of our work is within the greater Route 128 perimeter ("America's Technology Highway" - remember that one?), and in particular, is concentrated in the Boston-Cambridge area. We specialize in medium to large scale commercial development projects. We are involved with lots of construction projects, including high-rise buildings and any number of major developments in the greater Boston area.
Q: I probably should not ask this, but had you had any relationship with the "Big Dig"?
Fortunately or unfortunately, no. The Big Dig is a public works project, and we don't do much in the way of public works these days. There are (or were) many engineering companies that were holding that project high in their portfolio. Now, they are probably trying to explain it away (but not all those dollars)! The public perception is one of a tunnel that resembles Swiss cheese. The truth is not quite so dramatic. I drive through it every day and I haven't had to use my umbrella - at least not yet!
Q: What position do you hold within your company?
I'm Vice President and General Manager. That also makes me Database Developer-in-Chief. Actually, that's the fun part of the job. I wish I could devote a solid 20 to 30 hours a week developing and 'completing" my main Alpha Five business application. If I had that kind of time, it would finally be finished in about 9-months time. Alas.
Q: Do you do all the Alpha Five development work for your company?
I'm the sole in-house developer. "In-house" being a pretty accurate term in that I bring a lot of my development work home on weekends. The problem for someone in my position is that there is never enough time to be both VP and developer. When things are slow, I have more time for development. But when things are hectic, I find that the demand for Alpha's functionality is greatest. So when it's real busy, I am more motivated to provide new functionality to my application. Unfortunately the contradiction doesn't work real well. Still, somehow one finds the time to get the essentials done.
Q: Peter, is your formal training in software development or programming?
Neither. My formal training is in journalism, but it is a career I never pursued. Subsequently, I trained in land surveying, something which I have a natural sense for. Fortunately, I also have a sense for computers and programming, although I wouldn't consider myself an expert by any means. The truth is that anyone with a modicum of simple logic can learn Xbasic which is a fairly intuitive language. In the beginning there is always a learning curve and perhaps a certain resistance to trying something different, but if one makes the effort there is a definite reward in terms of creating powerful functional applications.
Q: How long have you been using Alpha's database products?
Don't quote me, but I'm going to say circa 1992. It was right when version 2 of Alpha Four came out. I remember reading that killer ad that used to run in the Tiger Software catalogs. I felt like that ad was written specifically for me. So I swallowed it - hook line and sinker! I remember that the package came with a cassette tape, which walked you through a series of tutorials. I haven't heard that tape in years, but I'm going to guess that it was Selwyn's voice. In any case, it was extremely helpful and got me off and running.
Q: Why were you looking for a database?
We had a database or two before that. Originally, sometime after the advent of the personal computer, we used PC-File by ButtonWare. As you may remember it was a flat file shareware program. The guy who developed it, Jim Button, was, like Alpha, devoted to fixing bugs and making the best program that he knew how. I remember a couple of times reporting a bug, and two or three days later, much to my surprise, a couple of bug corrected floppies arrived in the mail - no charge! Well, of course, Alpha does the same thing, just electronically. In any case, PC-File was pretty limited in it's capabilities, even in its final iteration of Version 5, which included mouse support! That was a big deal back then. Later we moved to Paradox. It was powerful and fast, but you had to script everything and the language wasn't the friendliest. That's when we discovered Alpha Four. Halleluiah!
Q: How did you find the move from PC-File and Paradox to Alpha Four?
It was one step at a time, our PC-File & Paradox dbs were pretty primitive. Since I was doing all the application building and trying to run a business, I had my hands full learning the secrets of relational database structure. It was a big learning experience for me and took a while to get the concept straight in my head. But once I did, it was great, I made progress and it really helped our business get the basics done.
Power and ease of use is what Alpha has always offered. Alpha Four wasn't hard to learn. On the other hand, with Alpha Four I never did learn how to write scripts. But, at that time I found with Alpha Four, unlike Paradox, I didn't need to write scripts. Alpha Four's easy to use macro "language" was a snap. Frankly, the transition from Alpha Four to Alpha Five was much more difficult - the DOS text to the Window's GUI transition thing.
Q: Where does Alpha Five fit in with your business?
Alpha Five plays a key role in most everything that we do: project management, drawing management (drawings being the lifeblood of our business), inventory, time management, accounts receivable and billing, records keeping, research, proposals, employee timesheets, organizing tools and so on. It really does a lot for us.
Q: How many people at your company use the Alpha Five applications you have developed?
It varies, say ten to twelve. But not all at one time. We have the ten-user runtime, and that has held up just about right for us. The bigger issue for us is Microsoft's XP network limitation of ten simultaneous connections. Sometimes I think that Microsoft profiled companies like ours and set the ten-user limit just to aggravate us. They have succeeded!
Q: You mentioned earlier that you would like to have the time to 'finish' your business application. I am curious what functionality you would like to implement?
Keep in mind this is an evolving application. At current count I have over 175 tables and 60 sets! Because when I began, I didn't have a good understanding of database structure, I do have some duplicity in my overall database schema. I would like to weed out the duplication to improve efficiency and rebuild some of my modules. For example, one of the most heavily used modules in my company is one that is called "Forms". It generates address labels, deliveries and messenger records, faxes, memos, transmittals, plan release forms and so forth. Although it works well, it was set up to service one addressee or client at a time. However, we typically need to address multiple parties at one time. So a restructuring is in order. I have begun doing this, but I'm a ways from completion. One of the new features will be automatic feeding of transmittal items into our billing system. Currently, this is tracked in a separate table for billing purposes, thus unnecessary duplication and some inefficiency. There are any number of other areas that need improvement, as well. So it's not so much a matter of adding brand new functionality as it is improving existing functionality and transparency to the application as a whole.
I have found that the key to a successful application is transparency to the user. If an application, or parts of it, requires too many mouse clicks and/or key strokes or if is not intuitive enough, it will fail - or, at least, it will require constant coaching and hands-on explanation by the developer. I really have come to appreciate the difficulty of providing the user with a good interface. On the other hand, a complex database application isn't tic-tac-toe and a computer isn't a television set, so there are some requirements that the end user has some basic computer knowledge. For example, it is really amazing how many computer users are unaware of right click context sensitive menus in Window's applications. Live and learn.
Q: This is a loaded question Peter, can you give us some insight as to why you have chosen to remain with Alpha Five rather than some of the competing products?
Actually, I don't think that is a loaded question at all. Alpha Five provides great power combined with great flexibility. That is its strength. Furthermore, the Alpha team under Selwyn's leadership has shown tremendous innovation and originality in their approach to Alpha Five, and a real commitment to stamping out bugs. But if your question is loaded, that side of it is answered as follows. Once you have invested hundreds, if not thousands, of hours developing a complex application, it really is hard to switch - even if you wanted to. Sometimes the grass looks greener in the other guy's yard. But truthfully, after you look around a bit, you feel pretty good about sticking with Alpha.
Q: If you singled out one or two (or more) features of Alpha Five that have been particularly useful to you, what would they be?
One or two? You're kidding? There are so many useful features it really is hard to single out one or two. But to take a stab at that abbreviated answer that your question suggests, the two that immediately come to mind are encryption and reports that can be instantly converted to pdf format. Now that is very useful in allowing you to electronically share critical documents with clients or potential clients. Now I know what you are thinking - "but many programs provide encryption" - right? True. And other programs have buttons, forms and browses and so on. The difference is the way that Alpha implements it. There is an ease of use issue combined with power that makes Alpha shine. Other programs may have "similar" features, but Alpha makes it much easier to use.
Q: I am curious Peter, tell us how you use encryption?
Nothing special, really. Employee and accounting records primarily. There are some other files that are sensitive as well. Before Alpha offered encryption this was a big problem. As it was, I wrote certain parts of our application with homemade encryption, particularly using some of Peter Wayne's ideas and examples. This, of course, was before Alpha offered real encryption. The result is, although I encrypt tables using Alpha's functions, the interface is my own. One advantage that this offers us is that the user can logout of the database, without closing the application. So basically, the Alpha app stays open on the users desktop, but it is "protected" from someone else accessing it. Not a big deal exactly, but a convenience for sure. Using homegrown logon procedures allows me to track who is on and who is off, and check their shadow version and so forth. It's a real necessity in an evolving application.
Q: Do you use any other software tools to help run your business?
Our two main engineering software tools are AutoCAD for design and drafting and a couple of coordinate geometry (COGO) programs that we use. One of them is VL System's Vango which runs on our ancient, but still functioning MicroVax, and the other one is a really old DOS program CivilSoft's CogoPC. Keeping the old DOS program running has been difficult, but we really need it because no one writes really good COGO programs these days. But fortunately, just yesterday, I developed a relatively simple schema, that will allow us to keep using CogoPC with the assist of Alpha Five. So over the next several weeks, time permitting, I'll write some Xbasic code that will extend the past into the future, if you will.
Q: How are you using Alpha Five to extend the life of a DOS app?
Actually, it will be by slight of hand. COGO-PC is an ancient pre-mouse, non-networked DOS product. But it will still run under XP if you treat it right. We tried to use it in a network environment, but it doesn't always work predictably. Depending upon which machine and which connection you may or may not get lucky and it may or may not run. However, one can finesse it to work ok as a standalone program. The problem is that multiple users may have to use the same set of files (i.e. work on the same project) sequentially. This has been a problem for us because COGO-PC uses several sets of files in different folders, and it has been very difficult to figure out who used the program last (in the right sequence), and then manually copy those particular 6-10 files in their respective folders from one machine to another so that the next user has the correct updated file set. Sound familiar? Enter Alpha Five. As it is, we already have a table to manage COGO files and information. The solution to our dilemma is to use Xbasic and the Alpha Five COGO db table to track the location of all the COGO files. The idea is, if a user wishes to access a particular file set, Alpha will copy the selected files with a single button click to the respective folders in the local machine (from the server). The file record, within Alpha Five, will then be automatically locked along with the current user's name and machine name in the appropriate fields in the corresponding COGO record. No one else will be able to access that file set as long as it is locked out by that user. When the users is finished with his or her work, they press a button in the Alpha Five application to unlock the record, which copies the updated files back to the server, making said files available to the next person. It's a little more complex than that, but you get the idea. Before this simple scheme came to mind, we were sweating it a little, since COGO is central to what we do. And as I said, no one writes good COGO programs anymore.
Q: Peter, we have talked about your business, but how about you, any hobbies or avocations we should know about?
Drum roll, please... My hobby is Alpha Five. You just can't get away from it!
Recently, I completed a homegrown checking/account application. I was frustrated with Quicken, having bought Quicken 2004 a year and a half ago, thinking that version would solve my home financial problems once and for all. No such luck. It didn't offer me all the fields I would ideally like to manage my finances, and my wife and I had problems balancing our checkbook because Quicken got an erroneous value into it's head that it just couldn't shake. Quicken's file downloading worked, shall we say, less than ideal. It often mixed up data or duplicated entries. It seemed to be incapable of managing my credit card downloads entirely. I knew I could do better. It's not that I am smarter than all those programmers over at Intuit. Of course not. But, I was able to home in on those features important to me and make the program do what I wanted.
So now I have a program that supports 999 accounts (that's a lot more money than I'll ever have). You know: checking, savings, CDs, investment accounts and so forth. The program supports running balance, balance check, posting between accounts, splits, locked records to prevent accidental changes, add/edit payees, add/edit categories, reconcile accounts, recurring transactions, query any item, bank statement reconciliation and reconciliation history, print checks, download & import bank/credit card accounts, backup files and so forth. I'm not bragging, but I like to make people aware of how powerful Alpha Five can be. My "checkbook" doesn't attempt to do everything that Quicken does, not by a long shot, but it does do what I want. And if I have a problem, I can solve it. I also wrote a script that captured over 10-years of Quicken data and successfully imported it into Alpha, splits and all. So I am pretty happy with the results - and with Alpha. Of course, I would have never undertaken this little project if Alpha wasn't fun to use. It certainly is!
Q: There must be something, take away your computer and Alpha Five. what would you do for fun?
Well to relieve stress and to stay fit I jog. But my interest is news and world events. I'm a total news junkie. I guess it goes back to my interest in being a journalist, and before then even. Especially in this day and age, with so much of talk of WMD, I find myself riveted to world affairs and issues of war and peace. It may not be "fun" in the meaning of that term, but it does engage me and I take very seriously the life and death matters that parade across our newspapers and television screens. So I do spend some time reading and keeping tuned in to public affairs and politics. We still live in the nuclear age, and although there are many of us who would like to forget that little unpleasantry, I for one cannot. So, at least in my case, I find that by paying attention to these issues, I am able to coexist with them with some peace of mind.
Now Jim, lest you think I am a total dud and all too serious, you should know that in my previous life I was a party animal. But I don't think we want to go there.
Q:... We'll talk about this later Peter...
Peter has been a resident of the greater Boston area since 1955. He has been employed in the field of land surveying since 1972.
In 1983 he joined Gunther Engineering in Boston, a family owned Land Surveying and Civil Engineering firm specializing in
commercial development, high-rise buildings and large construction projects.
He was formerly Vice President and a principal. His primary focus was managing client relationships and project oversight.
He developed a comprehensive Alpha Five application used to operate and manage the company's business.
In 2006 he sold the family business and is now a full time Alpha Five Developer providing both web and desktop database business solutions.
The application he created in Alpha Five to manage Gunther Engineering, Inc. is still in use today by the current owners of the company.
Peter Greulich can be reached at Peter@AlphaBaseSolutions.com