Spreadsheets are (mostly) amazing

Michael Bernstein, writing about spreadsheets vs. programming:

Spreadsheets are amazing, they solve specific problems in an optimal way, and they are as useful as a currency as we could hope for in information exchange.

I agree spreadsheets are very powerful and accessible. Excel is one of my all-time favorite applications! But there are two fundamental problems with spreadsheets:

  1. The way spreadsheets are structured makes it very difficult to find bugs in formulas or peer review them. In fact, a complex spreadsheet may be impossible to understand for anyone but the author.
  2. Version control and “diff” capabilities are far less advanced for spreadsheets than for programming languages. This is important for identifying the impact of changes and understanding the history of how a file was constructed.

I’m not saying we should throw out Excel and do everything in FORTRAN. But we need to be aware of these limitations, especially when using spreadsheets to make major decisions or in mission critical applications.

I wish makers of spreadsheet software would add in more advanced capabilities to address these problems, but I’m not holding my breath.

Max Masnick, PhD @max

© Max Masnick. Views expressed here are mine alone.