There are two places where file dependencies have always lived and thrived (and always will, no doubt): in architectural drawings, and in accounting. In fact, file dependencies have a long and bloody history, and people rarely give it any thought, except to be grateful that they’re so much more easily managed now.
Back in the day, architectural and engineering drawings and plans were sketched onto vellum, or trace paper—it was possible to build an image in layers, and assemble them into one cohesive image. On the bottom layer, you might have the basic floor plan, and on the second, you might have all of the doors and windows sketched in, the third might have the details of the kitchen, etc.
The entire process of recreating these plans was laborious, and draftsmen, who had good eyes, steady hands, and training, were in high demand, because the architects and engineers were not the only ones who needed these plans—everyone they collaborated with, including other firms, and the construction contractors and sub-contractors, all needed their own copies, and whenever the plans were revised, layers would have to be scrapped, redrawn, and redistributed.
File dependencies existed similarly in accounting. Until the 1700’s, accounting, or bookkeeping, was fairly straightforward. If you can picture Bob Cratchit from “A Christmas Carol,” freezing in a cold office counting someone else’s money, and writing down numbers in cramped little spaces in hundreds of bound ledgers—well, you’re not far off. Actually, you’re spot on.
If you had one ledger referring to numbers that had to come from another ledger, then it meant physically laying out these two books side by side, and noting the number in one, and writing it in the other. The margin for error was human, and the energy expended (from the comfortable perspective of a 21st century technophile) was high.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the mass production and transportation of goods, and then the massive growth of the railroads in the 18th century (did anyone else see the History Channel’s “The Men Who Built America?” That was fascinating!), the face of bookkeeping was changing rapidly. There were many new things that became important—it wasn’t only about tracking monthly profit and loss anymore.
To operate successfully, railroads needed to have visibility; they needed cost and production reports, and financial statements. When stock was publically traded, there needed to be impartial accountants who could attest to a firm’s financial figures. The 16th Amendment created the Income Tax, and suddenly there was another layer of bureaucracy that needed to be satisfied as to the accuracy of the numbers involved.
So, for both architects/engineers and for accountants, the struggle for the last century was to cope, to the best of their abilities, with the reality of having a number of disparate documents that were integral to other documents, and doing their best to keep these dependent documents adjacent to their master files as best they could.
The digital age has changed this. Radically.
Now, when an architectural drawing is completed in software programs like AutoCAD, or Revit, for example, you have many small drawings making up the greater drawing. Exactly the way that you had layers of vellum comprising a final design, now, there are many digital layers that make up a complete AutoCAD drawing; the final drawing derives its wholeness from these smaller files—to wit, file dependencies.
In accounting applications, the same has been accomplished. Whether you’re working in Excel, QuickBooks, or something bigger, stronger, and faster, you can ask one cell to refer to another one, in the same or different spreadsheets, in order to calculate the result quickly and accurately.
Creating software to manage these many file dependencies has been a challenge for the technology industry, one that’s been tackled with energy and success. Accounting applications and drawing/sketching/drafting applications have all created solutions. Now, you can have files from different documents referring to files in another, and the information is automatically updated.
This isn’t to say that the road has been a smooth one. In my initial research into file dependencies, I found miles of users in help forums who were bemoaning the restrictions of Excel ’95 and ’97 in managing their file dependencies. However—I didn’t find any post 2002. Rather telling, I thought.
So here is Document Locator, responsible for managing files that are relying on other files for being accurate and update—and what did we do? We found a way to seamlessly and painlessly manage files dependencies—because our engineers are that awesome.
Instead of doing the 21st century equivalent to fetching a ledger from the other room, opening it to the correct page, and manually writing the figure in the new column (that is, opening a child document, and then a parent document, and waiting for the software to finish calculating), we’ve automated it. Now, we have Document Locator open both the master file, and the dependent file, and have it update for you.
I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I’d much rather have you view the quick movie that I put together to demonstrate the idea instead. I know that I’m certainly grateful for how we manage it—and how grateful I am that the past is behind us, and the future lies ahead! A room full of bound ledgers? No thanks!