Spreadsheet heaven (why we love our spreadsheets)
When I was a girl engineer, we didn’t have personal computers.
Let me digress and explain the phrase, “girl engineer”. Early in my career, I worked with a very senior engineer who used to say, “when I was a boy engineer.” This of course led to discussions about gender and age related language in the workplace. And whether or not you could refer to a 25 year old woman as a girl. He had daughters entering the workforce, and he wanted them to have equal opportunity to have high paying jobs and great careers. Calling someone “boy” can be even worse than “girl” because it is used even more pejoratively. But as long as it was him calling himself a boy and in good fun, it was fine. Anyway, obviously this had an impact on me because still to this day, when I think about the early days of my career, I still think to myself “when I was a girl engineer.”
Getting back on topic, when I graduated and started my career as an engineer, we didn’t have personal computers. I remember getting the first one for the department, and we all had to share it. We coordinated our schedules so that we could each use it for a few hours a day. What was so great about it? Lotus 123 spreadsheets! All of a sudden, you could create a spreadsheet to do your calculations instead of writing them out by hand, getting out your calculator, and punching away. I was responsible for pilot plant trials of new products and had to scale up lab recipes to pilot plant quantities. There were many ways to optimize the trial, including maximizing the quantity we produced, or scaling it to some even number of drums of chemicals to avoid having to measure them out. Often there were multiple steps, so you could optimize one step at the expense of another. And therefore being able to look at different options was critical. And when each one involved manual calculations, it was time-consuming and prone to error. Now we could create a procedure using a spreadsheet and put in the formulas to calculate everything. If the Production Manager asked for it to be optimized a different way, all you had to do was change one number and everything else changed. It met the number one criteria for successful software – it made my life easier!
The other early use for me was calculating air emissions. This is often done based on assumptions and estimates because not all equipment has instruments to measure this exactly. The one thing everyone learned in engineering school was to state your assumptions. So, in the spreadsheet, I stated my assumptions, but I could also change those assumptions to see how much impact it had on the calculated emissions. We did some other checks and balances as well to make sure that the overall numbers made sense (for example, that we weren’t estimating releases to the air that were greater than what could theoretically be there in the first place.) And then each year, we improved our models to better match the data that we had available. Some environmental engineers are still doing it this way today! Why? Because most other software had the formulas hidden and unreadable by regular people (ie. not software developers.) Classic case of poor user experience – it’s hard to trust the software when you don’t know what it is doing!
I remember learning to use a spreadsheet through trial and error. Early on, I would read the manual, but later, I knew it had to be able to do what I wanted, so I just searched around until I found it. I still approach new software that way today. And when I find out that it can’t do what I think it should be able to do, I am disgusted at the design. “How could the software developer not understand that I need it to do this!” Good software is easy to figure out and does what the user expects it to do!
The most complex spreadsheet I ever saw was a financial model for a start-up I worked at. This one was so complex that the CFO had to turn off the auto-calc function. And when he hit calc, it could take 6 hours to run. But hey – we were a start-up! We couldn’t afford anything else.
Why are spreadsheets still so heavily used today for all kinds of business processes? Flexibility! When you aren’t even sure yet what you want to model, using a spreadsheet is the way to go. You have complete control. You enter the calculations and you can see the result immediately. Of course, if you enter it wrong, you might not realize it. If it doesn’t give an error message and the result isn’t orders of magnitude too large or too small, you’ll probably assume it is correct. And the worst kind of spreadsheet is one that someone else created and that you inherit. Since there are no rules, the other person almost certainly followed a different thought process than yours, and if they didn’t leave good notes, you’ll never know what they really did or how you should modify it.
As useful as spreadsheets can be, global organizations should not be still using spreadsheets to calculate their air emissions. Check out the new Environment Management application. It is easy to use and a regular person can write the formulas for your calculations.