I suddenly found myself with about a dozen projects to finish in the next few weeks and was beginning to lose track of where I was with all of them. So I decided to try out Airtable as a simple project management tool. Just as well, because I found I had almost forgotten one of them!
Airtable is a really simple online database tool with apps for your phone or PC. What makes it instantly appealing is the simple user interface. I have a lot of experience coding database software from scratch. A large part of that is designing the database structure, but even more time is spent designing and implementing a user interface.
Airtable looks like a spreadsheet. The initial view is a table where you can add named columns of different types such as text, dates, various number formats, formulas and others you might expect in a spreadsheet. What makes this different from a spreadsheet is that these fields can reference other tables. This instantly creates a relational database: in other words, the displayed information will be updated when the other table is changed. Airtable call the set of related tables a “Base”.
It is easy to add new tables and define the fields in each table using the interface. You can also import existing spreadsheets (in CSV format).
There are several different views of the data available. The default view is a grid (spreadsheet). This can be customised by filtering on the values of one or more fields (for example, only displaying the active projects for a particular client), by grouping the rows and changing the sort criteria.
There is a calendar view, a gallery view (which shows the entries as a series of cards with only the most important information) and a kanban view. Even if you don’t use kanban for project management, it gives a useful overview of the all the tasks in the project.
You can also create a form view for entering data. You can send the URL for the form to other people so they can submit data into the database.
Beyond that, Airtable supports collaboration. You can define a team of people with access to the database. There are different levels of access including view-only, edit and create.
But, best of all, the free version is fully functional and not time limited. There is a limit of 1,200 records (per database) in the free version. This will be enough for me for quite some time. There are various paid-for plans which extend the limits and give access to more features.
Because it is designed to be easy to use, there are some limitations in the sort of connections you can make between tables. The formatting of cells in the table view is also limited (no conditional formatting or graphs, for example). Also, there is no support for report generation – so I can’t generate invoices directly from Airbase.
So now I have a simple database of all my projects, with a basic CRM with details of the clients, and a record of invoices. I can see what needs doing by when, track my delivery dates and when I get paid.
As with any web-based tool, there is a worry that the company might suddenly disappear or remove free access. You can manually export the contents of each table in the database to a CSV file but there is no built in backup of the entire database. However, there is an API, so I have knocked up a Python script to dump the contents to a text file. Just in case.