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AMA Custom Blocks Contest Edition #4 - Ask You Anything (AYA)

Topic Labels: Custom Extensions
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Michelle_Valent
7 - App Architect
7 - App Architect

We’re advancing into the last week of the custom blocks contest (Submission deadline: July 6). This will be our last AMA in this series - with a twist! We’re turning it around to you: Ask You Anything (AYA).

We’d be interested to hear from you about one rose, one bud, and one thorn of your custom blocks beta experience so far. To be more specific:

Rose: Something that delighted you about the platform
Bud: Something new that the custom blocks platform unlocked for you, whether it’s a new workflow or new value in Airtable
Thorn: What is your top feature request or challenge that you ran into?

The thread is open for the next week and the 3 most insightful posts will win a $40 Amazon giftcard. Feel free to keep it under a sentence each. A member of the Airtable platform engineering team will select the winner at the end of day on Thursday (7pm PT).

23 Replies 23

Thanks, @Michelle_Valentine, @Kasra, and the rest of the Custom Blocks team!

Rose

Being a pretty new developer, I have found that React.js has a substantial learning curve. Despite that, Airtable’s excellently crafted SDK for Custom Blocks eased much of the learning process. All of the hooks that Airtable made available were absolutely indispensable for someone who is still trying to understand exactly how a “hook” works! The fact that I do not have to worry about figuring out how to trigger re-renders made developing on the SDK so much simpler.

The UI Components provided by the SDK were also a wonderful blessing! Having these pre-packaged, easily-configurable UI elements reduces the time to develop an excellent looking Block by a huge amount – probably upwards of 70%.

Overall, I am absolutely delighted that I have been able, as a novice, to develop some solid, useful, and beautiful blocks to augment Airtable’s functionality in a reasonable amount of time.

Bud

The Custom Blocks platform unlocks so much functionality in Airtable that wasn’t there before that it’s difficult even to focus my brain towards a single avenue for answering this question! In general, the Custom Blocks platform has unlocked the ability for me to meet the needs of consulting clients, without having to turn to other web tools, in a lot more cases. And to my mind, the biggest benefit realized from this fact is stability of the system as a whole. Web API’s are improving and expanding rapidly, but it remains true that the more separate services you introduce and the more connections you try to maintain in a software system, the more fragile it becomes and the more places for failure it assumes.

Custom Blocks provide the opportunity for immense amounts of flexibility in complex data processing, without requiring the cost of additional services, and eliminating the fragility creating and maintaining those connections. The existence of Custom Blocks will, for most cases, remove that slight hesitation I feel at suggesting Airtable as a platform for a client that I know will need more complex workflows or any degree at all of automation!

Thorn

Because the majority of the JavaScript package ecosystem is available to developers on the Custom Blocks platform, it’s difficult to find holes that couldn’t be plugged by external libraries. It’s likely the case that if Airtable’s SDK doesn’t provide, there is some library that does. So I think, for me, the biggest open-end with the Blocks platform is how Airtable will facilitate distribution of maintenance done on Custom Blocks.

There is an argument to be made that Custom Blocks should be just that… “custom”. If I build a Custom Block for Client A to meet their specific needs, it should be built and tailored exactly to those needs and to the shape of their base. It’s unlikely that a Block built with this mindset will exactly fit the use-case and data-structure of Client B, and so Client B will get their own Custom Block. But I can’t help but get the sense, from these contests, from the open-source nature of the Blocks, from the way Airtable addresses the use of these Blocks, and from Airtable’s own Blocks, that Airtable hopes for many of the Blocks built by the community to be widely available and usable by their user base, much of which is non-technical and will not be able to modify/customize source-code. It’s difficult to reconcile “Github Repos as a distribution method” with this democratic ideal of easy-to-use, community-built blocks that are well kept and maintained.

I guess the “thorn” for me is seeing a potential future where I end up with a mess of Custom Blocks and forks of Custom Blocks and emails and GitHub issues requesting updates and features from people I don’t even know making me wish I had never ventured in to developing something nice and sharing it with the world. Of course, this can never be fully eliminated, but with a good system, the pain of maintaining and distributing Custom Blocks could be mitigated to at least some degree.

Thank you

Genuinely – the Custom Blocks platform (in addition with the Scripting Block) elevated the value of Airtable to me personally, and as a consultant by 1000%. It’s hard to over-state just how big a deal this is for the platform.

:tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :tada:

Rose: Something that delights me about the program is that it exists at all!
Bud: Custom Blocks allowed me to eliminate a couple Integromat/Zapier workflows so I can do everything (in that workflow, anyway) in Airtable itself. The less I have to use third-parties, the better. And when third-party aid is still necessary, the fact that it may now be implemented in a block within Airtable itself with matching UI is a huge plus.
Thorn: Redistribution of blocks right now is a bit of a hassle, hopefully in the future shared custom blocks can be added in with ease. Maybe vetted Custom Blocks get added to the Blocks Library under a new “Blocks by Community” category. This will circumvent the Average Joe who has use for a pre-made custom block having to install Node/React on their system in order to use it.

Widgetic
6 - Interface Innovator
6 - Interface Innovator

Rose
Airtable feels just enough.

Explanation: while Airtable focuses on less than a dozen concepts (base, table, record, blocks), it does so with great documentation, examples, and community support. It’s easy to wrap your head (and heart) around it and explain it to others.

Bud
Real-time content.

Explanation: I find this to be the core value proposition Airtable brings to the table. It’s especially powerful for non-technical people.

Thorn
Lack of a creator role.

Explanation: There are community threads that are open for years on this broad topic. It seems that people need to share outcomes with their end-users and hide the configuration. Some try to do it by hiding Table tabs (not doable), others try to do it by linking to other Bases where to store this info, and share outcome Bases (not doable), and finally, others try to do it by sharing blocks directly, which again would have the configurations hidden (in Beta, will solve this issue for some).

In other words, a good amount of people are looking at ways to share the result of their creation (eg - a PNG), and not access to the “source code” (eg. a PSD). Even if it’s in read-only mode, it still defeats the purpose as it can affect how people interact with the Base by seeing the info that’s in it.

This creator mode would also be the place where the data that end-users input gets saved back to, so not only hiding configurations, but having the ability to be the one who gets back the results is also essential.

Tommy_Chan
5 - Automation Enthusiast
5 - Automation Enthusiast

Rose : Something that delighted you about the platform
To be honest, before I started looking into AirTables, I thought you guys were just another Google Sheets competitor. After I saw the use cases and the things that blocks can do, I was a bit blown away. You guys listed 4 use cases on the main site, but I would go even further and have an auto scrolling carousel of all the use cases that can be used because it adds so much more. In addition, the documentation for developing custom blocks is excellent! Special kudos to whoever did the API – for those who are less familiar with React, there is sample code for people to tinker with – I appreciate that a lot.

Bud : Something new that the custom blocks platform unlocked for you, whether it’s a new workflow or new value in Airtable
For me personally (indie game developer), it acts as a layer of information between our users and our code base. Our use case is we want our users to localization strings for our app without exposing the code to them. We don’t want users updating our codebase directly for obvious reasons, so adding this layer with Airtable and enhancing some of the data that can be automated with blocks and scripts to automate the commits to our codebase.

Thorn: What is your top feature request or challenge that you ran into?
I think if you want developers to continue to enhance the functionality of the Airtable (and to make it more valuable), it could be smart to take a page out of Amazon EC2 plugins and Salesforce and Confluence where they open the platform to developers for them to make extra revenue by creating plugins and blocks specific to a use case. It’s a win for the developer (they get $$$ from their efforts), it’s a win for Airtable (more subscription revenue and retained users) and a win for clients (they don’t have to hire consultants to build custom blocks). I would certainly build more plugins on Airtable if that were the case!

Best,
Tom

Tom, I’m curious to know what limitations you see to the current platform, that prevent you from building blocks and charging for them.

I believe all blocks need to be open source at the moment: Airtable Blocks SDK

@Tommy_Chan
I think those are guidelines for IF you want to open-source your block. I think a block can still be released into a base from a private repo. And I think you can release a block into multiple other remote bases from a private repo.

I think the blocks submitted for the contest have to be in a public repo just so that Airtable can access the repo and accurately assess the quality of the block code, security, etc, for the sake of judging accurately.

Just for the competition. But look at all the other services that are built as blocks, and offered as SaaS. My take on this is that there needs to be more focus on discovery and a process in place for submitting to Airtable. But other than that it’s a good start.

Kirill_Madorin
5 - Automation Enthusiast
5 - Automation Enthusiast

Rose
The quality and clarity of the documentation and examples code. It was rather simple to start developing

Bud
A possibility to replace the tools like Integromat with custom blocks for some use cases, such as sending SMS, messages in Telegram, scheduling publications in social media. I can do many things now not leaving Airtable. Still investigating new use cases.

Thorn

  1. A possibility to run several blocks simultaneously in development mode. I didn’t find out how to specify a different port on block run. It would be useful to test several blocks that work with the same table in development mode.
  2. Better logging after running block release. For example, I forgot to switch to a recommended node version and it was not possible to understand the reason for the error when building my block.
  3. A better way to share blocks with other users.
  4. Developer’s Slack or Discord to share ideas