What Can Excel Teach Us About Smoothing the Learning Curve?

In most organizations with a good-sized IT department, one of the banes of their existence is Microsoft Excel. Ironically, this is even more of a problem in the age of analytics, Data Science, etc. The IT staff and their consultants spend a lot of time lovingly crafting solutions so that with a touch of a button, users can produce gorgeous, powerful analyses. And yet IT still has to contend with users who squirrel away nuggets of data in ratty old Excel spreadsheets.

It often drives IT staff like me nuts, because these spreadsheets are often built on data from God knows where and that aren’t connected to the main data systems. So those spreadsheets end up producing numbers that don’t jive with other departments’ numbers — and guess who has to waste far too much of their time figuring out why? Hint: it’s not the person who created the Excel spreadsheet. But despite IT’s best efforts, they can never get rid of all of those ratty old Excel spreadsheets.

There’s a good reason for that. Those shiny, click-a-button solutions? They’re both powerful and easy to use — but only so long as users stick to the well-marked trails these solutions were designed to support. If you want to go where the trails were designed to take you, you’re all set. But if you need to step off those trails even just a bit, it’s like falling off a cliff. If you can’t solve the problem clicking a few buttons, you need to be a full-blown, skilled developer to cut your own path.

But with Excel? Excel’s motto ought to be, Git ‘Er Done. If you know the basics of Excel and you’re a little adventurous, it’s amazing what you can get it to do with a little help from Ms. Google. You can start by learning a trick or two, then gradually add more tools to your toolbox of tricks as needed. The results aren’t always pretty; sometimes it feels like Excel is duct tape for data. But like duct tape, you don’t need to be incredibly skilled to solve a remarkable range of problems.

And when people who have squirreled away Excel spreadsheets aren’t driving me crazy, I have to admit that in the past few years Microsoft has done a terrific job: modern Excel can often easily produce analyses that are gorgeous. In fact, when I need to get something done quick and dirty, even with all the fancy developer data tools I have at my disposal I often reach for Excel. Now that I’m self-employed, for example, I know I should take the time to learn a more sophisticated tool for handling my finances, and my inner data geek hates how sloppily I’m handling my data, but I never get around to it — it ain’t always pretty, but Excel spreadsheets are just so easy to tweak and extend.

If we’re going to create an economy where lots of people in every community are able to make a living off of the emerging worlds of robotics, AI, virtual and augmented reality, digital fabrication, wearables, etc., I think Excel has a valuable lesson to teach us. Tools that let us point-and-click to easily do amazing things are great. But we also need to start building our tools so they can do what Excel Excel does so well.

So long as the worlds of point-and-click and serious coding are completely separate, I don’t see how emerging tech will ever be truly democratized. And that’s nuts, because as Excel has shown, it doesn’t have to be that way. If we can create a smooth learning curve between learning how to use the tool, becoming a “power user,” and becoming a skilled developer, it won’t just make life easier in using the tech. Done properly, it could have a deep and profound impact on how just and equitable we can make our economy.

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