Grow out of that spreadsheet

Excel has got to be the most abused application in the short history of computer science. In fact, one should almost start an online petition to stop this world-wide practice. I have seen it used as a crude database. As a text editor. As an application builder. You’ve done it, you know you have. Here, I’ll cop up to it too: my name is Jean, and I’m an Excel abuser.

The thing is, spreadsheet applications are wonderful at what they do, but they commit one of the cardinal sins of software development: they are pleasers. By trying to be so completely flexible, they become everything to everybody. But inside, they hurt, when you ask them to do stuff they weren’t meant to do. Oh, they’ll suffer in silence, put up a smiley font, — err, front — but eventually, their poor little cells will collapse in utter despair and burn out.

When every little change you try to make to your fancy spreadsheet breaks it down, and you spend hours trying to figure out the problem and fixing it, that’s a sure sign you’ve outgrown your spreadsheet. You don’t have to wait that long before looking at alternatives, however.

But before I begin, let me show you I have nothing against spreadsheets. Let me just highlight the fact that there are new spreadsheet platforms out there today, above and beyond Excel, that offer some pretty nifty features. So if you still feel you’re doing just fine with spreadsheets, may I at least suggest you take them online? Google Sheets is very close to the Excel you know, and there’s a very, very cool feature (like all Google Suite documents) that allows you and your team to collaborate on the same spreadsheet – in real time! The kids will never tire of looking at the characters magically appear on the screen, typed by a ghostly remote figure… Make it a “Family night” thing, and attain that precious family-work balance we all keep hearing about!

Thy spreadsheet is wearing thin

All right, so you’ve been running with your spreadsheet for years now: if this were a real, paper spreadsheet, it’d be see-through and/or have holes in it from all the erasing and correcting.

If you were using your spreadsheet as a word editor, stop. Just stop. There’s no helping you until you decide to help yourself. Move on to Word, or any other real word editor, and use tables in there, if you must.

If you were using your spreadsheet as a database, or if you built formula so complex only your cat can make sense of them now – and he’s becoming cocky – it is time to level up.

The next step for you are online database builder apps. These are usually made for the non-coder folks. (“Nuggles” as we pure-blood coding folks call them) They will allow you to build a true database with your data, which is what you were trying to do in Excel without even knowing it. You’ll see very quickly how much easier it is to do what you wanted to do, even though you know less about the database builder than about spreadsheets – which is a sure sign you are now using the right tools for the job.

A database will allow you to treat data as data, and have all kind of logic “built-in” for you, like data integrity, data input validation, (no garbage in, no garbage out) etc. It’ll be much easier to slice and dice your data and draw-up nice reports. To answer burning questions like “How many times have I had to fix my Excel spreadsheet in the last week? month?”. (if that’s the kind of thing you track)

Plus most have a much nicer, more intuitive interface than a spreadsheet could ever give you.

Tight quarters? Light-up the app-signal!

So if database builders are so great and dandy, why would you ever want or need something more powerful? Remember how I said spreadsheets were pleasers, willing to do anything for you, no matter the cost to themselves? Well, database builders want to make it so easy for you to do what is otherwise a complex job that they sacrifice flexibility. You’ll get a bunch of features out of their toolbox, but they will be the tools that most people need. You might be able to work them into something a bit more unique, to fit your needs or your business philosophy and processes, but you will eventually reach that ceiling and feel a bit tight.

That’s where specialized apps come into play. Depending on your needs, you might be able to find an off the shelf app to do the job kind of okay. (if you’re really lucky, it’ll the the job perfectly) But most of the time, when I see people using spreadsheets to run some part of their business, it is because they have a special way to do things, a secret sauce. You know how a lot of our grand-mothers would shush everyone out of the kitchen at the last moment in the recipe to add their secret ingredient to the sauce? Well, that. I’ve even seen some business owners who jealously guard their spreadsheet formula and data even against their own employees and team members.

So with something as special and unique, something so central to the way your business run or its philosophy, there is little chance you will find an existing app that does it exactly like you want it to. You might have to cobble up a few different apps to do the job – but then some apps don’t play well with others, or quite simply, you’re using only one or two features of each of 10 apps to do the job. That gets big, complex to manage, and even costly.

A custom app then, is what you likely want to look into. (To the cynics: of course we had to get to that – I am an app-maker, after all.) A good developer will sit down with you and determine exactly what it is that you need – not just what you want, but what you need. She will listen and even watch you work, and together you will then be able to transform that essence, these processes, into a perfect-fit application.

There is no step 4

What comes after the custom app? Why of course it’s the quantum app! No, no, no. Well, not yet, at least.

An application is never done, believe it or not: people give up on it. Apps are creations that can grow forever. If they are built well, if they are modular, then you can add new modules as the need arise. Or change how one module works over time. So that custom app will be your loyal servant for a long, long time. Treat it well. And please: stop abusing spreadsheets. After all, if you print them, do they not bleed?

Main photo credit:
Spreadsheet photo credit: New York City or San Francisco VS Shenzhen for prototyping and manufacture via photopin (license)