This is a two part blog post chronicling my journey from hating Excel to loving Excel.
Here in Part 1, I talk about the hating Excel part of the journey, culminating with a glimmer of light at the end of this post which continues in the next blog post.
I didn’t know anything about Microsoft Excel until college. Excel in high school? Nope. But wouldn’t it be a good idea for high schools to teach Excel? I think so now, but I didn’t think so back in college. Maybe I would have gotten involved with Excel earlier if I had this professor in college:
Too Good for Microsoft
But alas, my college experience left me believing that I was too good for Microsoft and too good for Excel.
As a Junior at UCLA, I was working a part-time job 15-20 hours per week as a student programmer in the Social Sciences Computing Department, building an open-source Learning Management System (LMS) application that hosted all of the social science class websites at UCLA. This was before Blackboard (click here) took over the LMS space.
My team used the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP/Perl) so we were proud of our Linux knowledge and we looked down on the other progamming team that used Microsoft ASP.NET with its nice graphical user interface.
Microsoft was for people who didn’t understand computers. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
Fast forward to today and here I am using Acumatica which is built on the Microsoft programming stack. No more LAMP for me now 🙂
Too Good for Excel
As a Senior at UCLA, I got to take two classes as part of my Applied Mathematics: Management and Accounting major. Both of these classes were in the UCLA Anderson School of Management Graduate School.
So I’m sitting in my Management 212A: Decision Sciences Models 1 class feeling uncomfortable because here I am as a lowly undergrad and this class took place in the business school with MBA students in the class. The business school was a little too “fancy” for me and the MBA students were a little too “preppy” for me. So I was uncomfortable.
In this class, we were learning how to build linear programming models that solved for multiple variables. These are the kinds of algorithms that do things like schedule flights for airlines. Lots of variables, lots of constraints, multiple possible outcomes.
Anyways, the teacher gives us a choice: we can either do our assignments using Microsoft Excel with the free Solver Add-In or we can use GAMS (click here), a piece of software that normally costs a lot of money, but that we had access to as students.
I was into programming at the time and the GAMS software looked more like a programming tool to me. Plus, it was more expensive software which made it more valuable to me. It’s funny how price is so easily confused with value. I’m more educated now on the price/value phenomenon after experiencing the impact on consultants of Microsoft dropping the price of Dynamics GP (Great Plains) many years ago. Microsoft Excel also suffers greatly from this price/value phenomenon.
Looking back on my attitude at the time, I wanted a challenge, I wanted the more difficult option, using the more expensive software. Excel seemed too graphical, like a “cartoon movie” rather than a “grown up movie”.
I treated Excel like it was “kids stuff”. I was “too good” for Excel.
Death by 1,000 Digital Paper Cuts
My first job out of college was as a financial auditor for Deloitte.
Auditors generate things called “work papers” which used to be on actual paper. Thankfully I missed the paper, but at Deloitte I reluctantly had my first experience diving head first into Microsoft Office, using Excel and Word.
At Deloitte, I mostly hated Excel.
We had a piece of internal software that allowed us to “check-in” and “check-out” Word and Excel files, kind of like what Microsoft SharePoint does now.
Most of my day was spent in Excel. I would checkout the Excel file, do my work, then check it back in at the end of the day.
I could no longer avoid Excel like I was able to do back in college. Grrr. I hated Excel. It seemed so elementary.
We had a lot of linked Excel files which had to be updated. This felt very clunky. To this day, I really do not like linked Excel files.
Excel was definitely better than using paper, but my programming brain didn’t like it. There was too much formatting involved.
Everyone had their own style (font sizes, colors, etc.) and most people started working on an Excel file by applying their own formatting style to it. Then someone else worked on the file and applied their own personal style to it, resulting in a “formatting tug of war” of sorts.
Excel would crash periodically and you would lose any work that you had done since you last saved so you made sure to save as often as possible. I still unconsiously use Ctrl-S a lot when working on an Excel file.
Even though Excel was better than paper, it didn’t seem like a good place to store information. It wasn’t good at being a database. In fact, it was terrible at being a database. I still feel that way today. An ERP system like Acumatica is a much better database than Excel.
Excel is the opposite of “one version of the truth”. When using Excel spreadsheets rather than an ERP system, everyone can build their own version of the truth. Kind of like what social media has done to truth in society, Excel as a database creates multiple versions of the truth in an organization.
A Glimmer of Light
Deloite was my first experience using Excel and, although I didn’t like Excel overall, I did have fun with the Excel functions. My co-workers would frequently ask me for creative ways to solve their real-world problems with Excel functions. This made my programming brain happy. And it made them happy too.
Most of my co-workers didn’t have a programming background like I did, but they understood Excel functions. They might not be able to come up with an elegant formula on their own, but they could understand a formula that was handed to them. Excel functions were essentially the language that we auditors used to communicate.
So, even though I hated Excel and I would continue avoiding it if I had a choice, the calculation engine in Excel, with it’s powerful and user-friendly functions, was interesting to me. Little did I know that, as an auditor, I was only scratching the surface of what Excel could do.