When I teach classes on e-commerce and web sites here in Austin, one topic that constantly elicits either yawns or fearful, wide-eyed stares is the subject of databases. Everyone uses databases in one way or another — they power your accounting software, they run Google and a million other web sites, they might even be running on your smartphone — but the mention of databases tends to make people’s eyes gloss over. Databases are dry, uninspiring tools to store information. In and of themselves, they offer little in the way of excitement. Hook them up with the right software, however, and they work magic.
Databases derive much of their power from structure. When you impose a structure on data you can organize it, search it and report on it. Add relationships to the mix, and you’ve got real juice. A list of all your customers is a good thing, but tie every customer to their invoices, orders, quotes and phone calls, you’ve suddenly got a complete system for managing your business. Companies charge quite a bit of money for these kinds of systems, and if you’ve got the scratch, they can have a huge impact on the way you run your business.
A quick show of hands: How many of you have a current (that is, within the last few days), complete backup of your laptop or PC at hand in case something goes terribly wrong? I thought so. Like to live on the edge, eh? Of those of you that are backed up and ready for an emergency, how many store a backup offsite? Really? If your office burns down tomorrow, that set of tapes or external hard drive isn’t going to do you much good, is it?
Don’t worry – you’re not alone. Last year, a survey conducted by backup/anti-virus software maker Symantec found that only 57% of users had any kind of backup of their valuable data. That means almost half of you are out of luck when a crash or disaster occurs. Hopefully, your company’s important financial and customer data is stored on a server or backed up offsite, so that may not be much of a worry. But how many of you have vital customer information – like quotes, contact info and so on – stored on your laptop? What would you do if it suddenly disappeared?
Over the last two weeks, I’ve tried to usher those of you with dysfunctional inboxes into a more peaceful place — a world where emails are filed instantly, responded to promptly, and packed with valuable information. For the readers who adopted a suggestion or two and found your email lives a little more manageable, congratulations — you’re on the road to recovery.
If any of you opted for the zero inbox strategy, that’s even better; soon, you’ll find your mind at ease, and don’t be surprised if other problem areas of your life begin to improve. That pile of oily rags creating a fire hazard in your garage? Now you have the willpower to clean it out. Your car trunk full of loose tools, firewood and old magazines? Toss it all. Your faded, yellowing expense receipts from 1985? Take ’em over to the shredder. You’re done.
OK, this is supposed to be technology column, so I probably shouldn’t be advising you about housecleaning. But sometimes, even in the realm of technology, a “fresh start” is the best way to move forward. We’ve all got clutter in our lives, and very little of what clutters our lives is truly valuable. Sometimes it’s easier to toss it all in the wastebasket than it is to sort through it and figure out what’s worth keeping.