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Excel is Maslow’s hammer of our time

The law of the instrument states that if your only tool is a hammer, you are tempted to treat everything as a nail. In modern business this hammer often is Excel. Every time someone needs a little (or larger) tool to do some work, in many companies the result is an Excel spreadsheet with lots of logic, programming and formatting in it. It’s tempting since in a corporate environment nearly everyone has an office suite on their computer. An obvious solution is hacked together pretty fast and often never again understood, but more on that later.
There are however some fundamental problems with applications becoming spreadsheets:

  • They are inherently not multi-user capable.
  • They are not versioned. Everyone has some version or the other of the file. Nobody knows which is the newest.
  • They are not maintainable or understandable for someone else as the author or later on even by the author.
  • Data, code and visualization literally live within the same space.

Why are those things generally and inherently bad? Aren’t there legitimate use cases for „Excel apps“? Let’s give all the shortcomings a closer look.

Not multi-user capable

Without using special server components Office documents are not multi-user capable. The start of all misery often is a mail, spreading a document among several people. Then some or all of them start to make changes. If they don’t synchronize who works in which order on the document (and sending around updated versions of the corpus delicti!) the proliferation of conflicting versions will drive you mad some time later.

No versioning

Different people will have different versions of the document. Even you yourself might have different versions, if you chose not to overwrite the existing file: My_Important_Calculation_2019-01-05.xlsx, My_Important_Calculation_2019-01-07.xlsx, My_Important_Calculation_2019-01-07_better_version.xlsx … sounds familiar, eh? I hope I don’t need to explain why this is bad.

Lack of maintainability

Ever tried do decipher a formula as long as the Panamericana crammed in a cell the size of a fruit fly? And now imagine trying to understand what the whole worksheet does by clicking into each and every cell and try to figure out what happens therein. I know there are people who are able to grasp an overall view of a worksheet they never saw before. But I prefer to use my brains computational power to solve the underlying business case or problem instead of an encrypted version of it in a worksheet.

One-pot solution

Your data (the numbers and texts in cells), your code (formulas) and visualization (some inline created graphics) literally live in the same place, your worksheet. You could try to separate the code by using Visual Basic for applications or some more modern replacement but this solves the problem only partially. And you lose some of the just in time synchronous tooling which is one of the few advantages of the Office solution.

So what?

Writing good readable and maintainable code is empathy with your team and your future self. The hardship you go through when you rely on office “applications” for your business mostly was created by yourself and / or your team. At least for the cases you and your team is responsible, you can do better.
Set up an application dedicated to your business problem. There are technical solutions that allow you to do so in a fast and agile way. You can put that solution on a central server so everyone has access. You can back up that server or service to prevent data loss. And your solution will have a much better user experience.
And don’t tell me your company is not a software company because you produce goods or sell services. Thinking this way is sort of a déformation professionnelle (french term for “looking at things from the point of view of one’s profession”). If you deploy some code (in whatever environment), at least part of your company indeed is a software company. Don’t take me for that, maybe you put more confidence in General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt who said in an interview with Charlie Rose “Every company has to be a software company”.

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