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Spreadsheets - the ubiquitous wrong choice


© August 2004 Tony Lawrence
Fri Aug 27 11:02:50 2004

Spreadsheets are a wonderful tool. However, I too often see them used to create projects that should have been done in a real programming language - almost any real language. These home-brewed monsters are often clumsy, inefficient, gigantic and of course fragile. The effort that goes into creating these is often considerable, and the amusing thing is that the creation of these highly complex sheets involves the same sort of programming logic that any programmer uses, but the people who build these will say that they "aren't programmers".

I was reminded of that in a conversation with someone yesterday. He works at a bank and has developed some complex Excel spreadsheets for various tasks. He and the bank recognize the inefficiency here - that is not recognized at all in many companies, so give them credit for that. They have "real" programmers who translate spreadsheet logic into Visual Basic programs. Good so far, but unfortunately the programmers are always behind schedule, so projects wait.. and wait.. and wait.

So this person asked his bosses if he could take some courses in Visual Basic. Seemed like a good idea to him: if he were halfway good at it maybe he wouldn't need the "real" programmers at all, and even if he did, at least they'd have something better to start with.

You probably can guess the answer: flat no. Oh, he could feel free to take the courses if he wanted, on his own time with his own money. But no help from the bank, and no interest, obviously. Not job related, they explained.

Well, you could argue that both ways, of course, and the real problem probably is that the bank is too big to make exceptions even when it is fairly plain that it would do them good. So he'll go on developing those big clumsy spreadsheets and will continue to wait for the "real" programmers.


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More Articles by © Tony Lawrence



"Spreadsheets are a wonderful tool. However, I too often see them used to create projects that should have been done in a real programming language - almost any real language. These home-brewed monsters are often clumsy, inefficient, gigantic and of course fragile."

Not to mention that they aren't portable. Try as I might, I can't get any of my UNIX tools to open an Excel spreadsheet (not that I'd want to). In fact, if some bozo sends me an Excel spreadsheet as a data source, I have a problem: I don't use any Microsoft office stuff.

"They have 'real' programmers who translate spreadsheet logic into Visual Basic programs."

I didn't know that Visual Basic was a real programming language.

"So this person asked his bosses if he could take some courses in Visual Basic...flat no...not job related, they explained."

That sort of boneheaded thinking is fairly typical in larger companies (which includes most banks -- a real bunch of drones if there ever was one). And the managers wonder why they can't retain good people!

--BigDumbDinosaur

---August 27, 2004

This misuse of spreadsheets is not a new problem. Twenty years ago, Lotus 1-2-3 was the favorite word processor for many business people.

--Bob

---August 27, 2004

To BigDumbDinosaur

POI is an Apache project that reads and edits Excel (and other office files) in Java. I've used it for a consulting gig myself, and it works wonderfully. It wouldn't be too hard to kick out a tool with it using Jython or gcj to get data out of it on Unix.

https://jakarta.apache.org/poi/

Though not for Excel, it begs mentioning here -- Antiword is great for converting Word files to text:

https://www.winfield.demon.nl/

MikeHostetler


---August 27, 2004

Python > Spreadsheets. Python, especially for mathmatical functions and stuff like that rock.

Hell it's all orginized into functions and have powerfull mathmatical stuff that any accountant should recognize.

Combine that with a SQL database and one of the many python SQL products like at https://sourceforge.net/projects/pysqldb/ or one of the numerious commercial products.

You could have any company get rid of their dependance on spreadsheets hell.

Oh well what do I know?

Not much, but I do understand that most people misunderstand the purpose of a computer. It's not to make it so that you don't have to think, it's to provide a powerfull tool to augment your thinking. Programming is something that everybody does in one way or another when using the computer, most people just don't like to acknowledge it as such.

--Drag

"POI is an Apache project that reads and edits Excel (and other office files) in Java."

<Smile> My point was I *don't* want to read and/or edit Excel files, Word docs, or worse yet, Powerpoint presentations. If I did, I'd get the latest Microsoft Office whatever and deal with it.

Since I have access to real programming languages running on a real computer (not one of those Windows things), if the occasion arises where I need to collate, lacerate, masticate, macerate or cogitate data, I can put together some code that will do exactly what I need -- efficiently -- obeying execution rules that are formulated by me, not by Bill Gates' lackeys. If it isn't too heavy duty a process, Perl works just fine. Otherwise, I could fire up the C compiler, using ISAM database, or if I'm pressed for time and need to get a lot of processing done in a hurry, I have the Thoroughbred Dictionary-IV environment.

"...most people misunderstand the purpose of a computer. It's not to make it so that you don't have to think..."

That's something that the average computer user seems to forgotten. A computer's strong point is its ability to rapidly handle the sort of mind-numbing repetition that human beings hate and don't do well. As far as thought goes, however, the most powerful computers available today running the most comprehensive artificial intelligence software in existence have about the same level of cognitive ability as a trained donkey -- if that good.

--BigDumbDinosaur

---August 29, 2004

I often find people using spreadsheets, where a database would be a much better choice to do the job. They are usually 4-6 fields of data entry type information, and contain thousands of lines of input. The filesize of the spreadsheet is always huge, where a resulting database would take up much less space.

- Bruce Garlock



---August 29, 2004





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