Confessions of an Excel addict

Oct 01, 2012

Matt Vella was an editor for Fortune between 2011 and 2013. He is now an editor at Time.

By Brad Morris, contributor

FORTUNE -- They say the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. My problem is that I’m addicted to Excel.

It started in college. I used Excel to make really amazing spreadsheets that impressed many of my professors. My formatting was, and still is, impeccable. I was hooked. It was at this point that I realized that I could work better, faster and stronger using Excel.

Right after graduating from college I got an internship at Bell Sports. I was responsible for manually tabulating and analyzing the results from a survey of 8,000 people. I spent most of that summer living in Excel, and I loved every minute of it.

My first real full-time job was at a search-marketing agency. This is where I met my Obi Wan Kenobi of Excel. He taught me things in Excel that blew my mind and changed my career. I've created some of the most beautiful and complex spreadsheets - VBA functions, Pivot Tables and Arrays that worked together in the same way that a highly trained unit of Navy Seals would work together. I became an expert.

Whenever I’m doing work in an application, any application, the first thing I do is look for the “export to Excel” function. After all, this is where I’m going to do all of my serious work. I want it. I know I am going to need it.

I know a lot of people like me. We love Excel and we’re addicted to it.

Now I have a new problem: I've finally started to realize how incredibly insane I've been all this time.

Where Excel Begins To Break

The reality is that Excel hasn't changed all that much over the past 10 years, and this is technology that’s been around for about 3 decades. The way we work is constantly evolving, and Excel just isn’t keeping pace. For all of its beautiful complexity, the lack of innovation makes its flaws painfully obvious.

The least obvious, but the most critical problem is something that it really excels at (pun intended): complexity.

I can't tell you how many times I've created a spreadsheet, found an error, and then dedicated the next hour to digging through formulas and sheets only to find that I accidentally typed a semicolon instead of a colon.  Or try sending a complex spreadsheet full of VBA functions, formulas and charts to a colleague and see if they can decipher it. Even if they're an expert, they're still going to spend critical time figuring out how it works. I've even gone as far as creating how-to sheets with notes and instructions in an effort to offer a roadmap for how my spreadsheet works.

And I know I’m not alone. This has happened to many of us. Admit it, we’ve all been there. The amount of time wasted passing spreadsheets around is immense. Scenario plans, product launches, hiring plans, market analysis, acquisitions, forecasts – you can’t open your inbox without finding several Excel attachments. Users and whole organizations are addicted just like me, even if they don’t know it.

It's maddening when I stop and think about all the time I've wasted fixing errors instead of doing actual work. Excel’s complexity is like a vintage car. You spend more time in the garage with grease on your hands than driving it through the countryside. Many people love their cars, but trouble shooting a spreadsheet for a whole weekend doesn’t make sense.

The Excel nightmare gets much worse when you need to collaborate to get work done (which is most of the time).

Let's say you're working on a project with a few coworkers. You make some changes and shoot it off to coworker #1 so they can review what you've done and add their own work. When they're done, they send it to coworker #2. But wait, you forgot to add something. Coworker #2 finishes their work and sends it back to you so you can make your changes. Unbeknownst to you, coworker #1 also forgot to add something and received the same version of the document you're now editing, and they're updating it with more changes. Follow me? Exactly.

Last but not least is compatibility.  Excel just isn’t compatible with today’s work environment.

Whether you want to admit it or not, everyone is working with a mix of Macs, iPads, Android tablets, and numerous smartphones across your enterprise. These devices don't offer a great Excel user experience - if they even offer one at all. What’s the point if you can't confidently send someone an Excel document and know if they'll even be able to consume it?

I love Excel, but sadly, Excel doesn’t work in the new world of mobile, social and cloud. We should expect more.

=if(Excel=Fade, "yes", "no")

The truth is, all of my issues with Excel were always there - they were just easier to justify. It was a time when most companies were still issuing desktop machines, most people didn’t yet have access to email through mobile phones, and we were still printing meeting agendas on actual paper (the horror!). But those medieval times are behind us, and the way we work has changed. Excel isn’t the incredibly precise weapon it used to be, it’s the ancient weapon behind the glass at the local museum.

The telephone used to be so valuable that it commanded its own device. Now it's one app among many on your smartphone. Sadly, Microsoft Excel’s fate is headed in the same direction. We will always need something like it to complete certain tasks, but most of the functionality you depend on Excel for will be baked into the applications you’re already using or will be using in the future. If you think this sounds crazy, just wait. You’ll be in an office somewhere one day and you’ll hear someone say: “Remember when we used to do most of our work in Excel? That was crazy, right?”

Brad Morris is the director of social marketing and analytics for Tidemark, an enterprise performance management company building cloud-based planning, forecasting and analytic applications.

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