TL;DR For the other spreadsheet addicts out there, there’s a better way.
For my entire career, I’ve been the office’s spreadsheet guy ー good with numbers, pretty organized, and unfettered in my ability to solve a problem with a spreadsheet. This is both a blessing and a curse: It’s empowering to build spreadsheets that help your teammates, friends, and family make decisions. But at the same time it’s hard to break out of that shell where everything in life is quantified in a cell.
Two years ago, I tried a new doc built for modern spreadsheet aficionados—
. It challenged my assumptions about data and changed the way I saw my job. In April, I signed on as a Product Evangelist, so I could help spread the word to other recovering Excel addicts.
Here’s my story.
Don’t touch my stapler.
A bit of background. Prior to my first job out of college, I thought Excel was meant for these guys:
I know it’s a stereotype, but I seriously thought Excel was meant for “boring accounting stuff.” Little did I know, my career would be defined by this tool.
I started my career as a financial analyst at Google where I was thrown into the deep end of spreadsheets.
My indoctrination into Excel started the same way I’ve heard many others start. First by formatting simple dashboards for reporting ー take some data, tell a story, make it look pretty. Then by automating those dashboards with formulas ー removing the repetitive work. But it’s at this point where the wizardry really starts ー more complex models and even a few macros. But somewhere in this progression is a critical insight where you realize that all business problems can be modeled in Excel and consequently, I could solve these problems by adjusting the levers in my model. #mindblown
There’s a shortcut for that.
At Google, I took a 10-day training meant for investment bankers, where I was expected to create financial models, dashboards, and other tools for Google’s engineering division. (If I had to describe my first year as a financial analyst, it would be that “you learn how to swim really well when you’re desperately focused on not drowning.”)
But that 10-day training did more than just show me the power of Excel ー it sent me down a path caring deeply about productivity. Near the beginning of the training, the instructor spent about an hour or so on keyboard shortcuts. Paraphrasing a bit, he said something to the effect of “human beings are slow and error-prone in Excel.”
At first, I didn’t really understand what he meant. But then he went on and explained that every incorrect click or superfluous scroll on your mouse may not seem like a lot, but in aggregate they add up. The message landed and I disciplined myself to use only keyboard shortcuts no matter what type of work I did in Excel.
After only a few months practicing what he preached, I wanted to spread the gospel. If one could be 50% more productive on the job, what would happen if everyone on the team could increase their productivity by this magnitude? I led internal trainings on using Excel at Google regularly hearing from my colleagues that learning keyboard shortcuts were the most beneficial for their day-to-day job. I went so far to create a silicone keyboard cover for the Mac that shows you Excel shortcuts right on the keyboard.
The community finds you.
You know how an athletic 7-foot basketball phenom in a remote village somehow gets discovered by an NBA scout? This is the Excel version of that.
My friends all knew I was a spreadsheet nerd and would point out various communities online and offline where people like me geek out about Excel. I started visiting message boards and going to meetups. At some point, I was invited to “cover” the 2014
competition, as if I were part of a press junket. People saw how passionate I was about the subject, and they gravitated toward me. Eventually I became the #1 Excel teacher on the online education platform
There are tons of little Excel communities out there. The common thread among them (at least that I’ve noticed) is not a devotion to Excel. It’s that we’re proud to be hackers and developers. Excel just happens to be our tool of choice. We get joy from manipulating formulas that give us the power to change the way we look at business and the world.
Spreadsheets have enabled us to take an unstructured problem, break it down into its component parts, and neatly change and edit those parts.
The truth is Excel cannot solve all problems.
Being an Excel “developer” is like being a car mechanic; eventually there will be problems you cannot fix and whatever hacked up solution you come up with will be retired for a new model.
Three months ago, a global hotel chain commissioned me to build a budgeting tool that would be used by multiple leads around the world. An analyst had built the original tool in Excel, but over time the formulas stopped working because the underlying data and categories changed. I was brought in to debug the formulas and re-format the file based on the new hotels, updated cost classifications, etc.
In addition to fixing the file, I had to make sure it checked for errors so a hotel lead could not mistakenly enter a -5 in a cell that should only have positive numbers. Once this Excel file was all patched up, any new version would be e-mailed to the hotel leads around the world.
Excel got the job done, but it was far from ideal given that the file would be subject to human error, formulas could break, and controlling the versions is always a hassle. Excel was clearly not the best tool to use here, but creating a custom web application would have been overkill.
If you’re a consultant, this will probably sound familiar. No matter how custom or elaborate you make the spreadsheet, the client will inevitably want to make changes and edits as time goes by. And then some poor consultant after you will have to re-learn this intricate tool to edit the model.
I wanted to build something more powerful than what Excel could offer.I wanted to build the apps that web developers build, but I don’t know how to code…I’m just good at Excel.
A new day for recovering Excel addicts.
One day, my friend Matt (and fellow Excel jockey) asked me to try this new stealth product called
. At the time, I was in the middle of various Excel consulting projects and pitied any tools that tried to rival my mighty Excel sword.
I gave Coda a chance and attempted to build real solutions that I would normally build in Excel or Google Sheets. As with any new shiny tool, there is a bit of a learning curve but once I got over the hump, I was hooked. This led me on a mission to try out other similar tools, but I kept coming back to Coda. It has the perfect mix of “coding” with formulas, Excel-like functionality, and all the modern browser-based features you see in today’s online tools. I started thinking about fitting business problems into a Coda doc instead of a spreadsheet.
Suddenly, the spreadsheet felt so limiting and archaic, like something Milton from Office Space would use. No matter how much I could hack together a model in Excel, it would still never be as refined as a web application. I could try and get my hands dirty with code, but I’d be so inefficient and slow. Besides, I’m an Excel jockey. I want things to recalculate right away and have things neatly laid out in a grid.
Said differently, Coda felt “just right”. Powerful enough to build applications but familiar like the spreadsheets I was used to.
Do I still use Excel?
Yes, 100%. As I said earlier, I’m an addict.
I don’t see Coda replacing all use cases of Excel. In fact, I’d readily encourage a friend who was building a complicated financial model to not switchー that is what Excel is meant to do. For me, the biggest shift in thinking is recognizing that all business problems should not be thrown into a spreadsheet.
Excel users have a strong tie to spreadsheets not because of the feature list but because it gives you a familiar frame that grows and adapts. And once you’re done, you feel like you made something special. This great Wall Street Journal article says something similar: “There’s a Red Badge of Courage that people wear when they stay up all night and work a spreadsheet to get something that they think is unique and artisanal.” (