Taking Over: How to Start Managing an Online Database Application

With all the new technology out there empowering business users to build their own solutions, ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) applications are becoming increasingly popular. While this powerful trend allows teams to work faster and frees up IT department backlogs, one challenge with DIY apps is ownership and governance. When an application creator moves on from a team and his or her apps are left to you to manage…with no direction…how do you effectively take the helm?

In my role as a sales engineer for Intuit QuickBase, I have worked with dozens of customers at key transition points—when they start building a new database app, when they are starting to manage apps for the first time, or when they are taking over for someone who built the original database app. Whether the new app owner is a technical person, an existing end-user, or new to the organization altogether, there is often anxiety around becoming a new manager of a database application.

It is my hope that this post will provide help through the special transition of taking over management of existing online database applications. I’ve identified a few key steps that can be taken to become familiar with an app—its functioning and the value in its use— which are key steps to managing an app effectively and getting up to speed as quickly as possible.

Understand the workflow

A good place to start – even before diving into the technology – is getting a complete understanding of the business process that the app was built to manage. Does it manage sales pipelines, hiring processes, inventory, customer support issues, or other workflows? Knowing how to manage and configure the software is useless if you do not understand what you are configuring it for. If you’re lucky, your predecessor left you detailed documentation with workflow charts and requirement specs.  If that is not the case, there’s no better time to start creating them then now.  Not only will it help you wrap your head around the entire process; it will also help your successors, as well as save you the time of explaining the system over and over again once you have become the expert.

Engage end-users

I have found that end-users are one of the best sources when trying to understand business processes. When I am working with a customer and providing guidance on how to design or edit their application, I often hear from upper level managers, “Let me get [fill in the blank end-user] on the phone…they will be able to explain this better than I can.” Similarly, you’ll want to learn from the people that are executing the process, are closest to the issues, and have the best sense of the operational details.

Conduct “reverse demos” 
A great way to gain an understanding of how end-users work with applications is to do reverse demos.  This is where you have one or two stakeholders from each of the user roles demonstrate to you how they use the application.  Some of your user roles might be people who enter data into the application, people who simply receive automated reports to their email inboxes, and people who have view-only access in the application.

Reverse demos help you to:

  • Gain visibility into the features and functionality that are being leveraged.
  • Understand what users like and dislike about the application.
  • Gain an understanding of what additional functionality end-users would like.
  • Understand what aspects are critical to the process.

Assess what’s in your toolkit
Once you have established a good working knowledge of the business process and how an application is being used, seeking out technical resources can help your understanding of the technical bounds of the software.  Every situation is different, but I have listed below some tools that you can look for.

  • Internal
    • Builders of other applications which leverage the same technology.
    • Internal documents that might have been created by previous owners of the application(s).
  • External
    • Help documentation (most DIY application software will have comprehensive documentation).
    • Technical support team offered by the vendor.
    • Online chat.
    • Account management team, provided by the vendor in some cases for select accounts.
    • Online Community.  In some cases this is one provided by the vendor, in others there is a passionate community.  Or both!
    • Example applications or templates provided by the vendor.

As the popularity of DIY apps continues to grow, and more complex and critical business processes are managed with DIY solutions, the need for business users to understand process management and the basics of data structures also increases. Breaking down the learning curve of becoming an app manager into digestible steps should make the transition of ownership easier. Additionally, it will provide an opportunity for refinement and may also present a critical moment where a new use for the app can be identified and explored to drive greater collaboration between teams and up the chain.

Scott Galloway

I’m a sales engineer at Intuit QuickBase, where I help workgroups to uncover new ways to drive greater efficiencies with QuickBase.

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  • Rich Crum

    Scott, in my experience you are spot on with all of your insights. Thank you as well for pointing out reverse demos. They are a powerful way to draw out critical pieces of information on what users are trying to accomplish. They also give a sense of how effective or frustrating on how the current application might be set up. Many times some of the undesirable aspects are easy to change – especially with QuickBase!

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