My Excel Experience

I have been working with Microsoft Excel since as early as 1996 when I began using the spreadsheet application to track employee performance at a telephone company where I was the Training Supervisor. Like most people, at first I simply had a spreadsheet with names, numbers and comments but as the data grew, analyzing the data was more important than storing it. With over 1000 employees among 3 call centers, this was going to require more than a simple knowledge of =sum(). I created detailed pivot tables and eventually VBA macros to analyze all the data. This was all self-taught due to the expense of the training at that time.

Since those early days, I've been employed at several businesses where these Excel skills have been needed. This includes years spent at various transportation/logistics companies developing ratesheet calculators, transit time studies, and general reports. I've also spent a fair amount of time doing side jobs for people involved in banking, publishing, appliance manufacturing, and general assembly. All of these things have challenged and grown my skills with Excel.

WHY EXCEL

Sometimes I'm asked why I prefer to develop these tools in Excel rather than Microsoft Access or something more robust like SQL. Well, first most business people are familiar with basic Excel use on a daily basis. Spreadsheets dominate the data and information dissemination process at most companies. Bottom line; it is easy for people to use. There is typically no need to train them on the basic operation. I can create a more functional, behind the scenes macro that will simply interact with tasks the person is already doing with their spreadsheets.

EXCEL ALTERNATIVES

Besides programs like Access, there are alternate spreadsheet applications like:

  1. OpenOffice
  2. LibreOffice
  3. KingSoft
  4. Zoho Docs
  5. FreeSoft
  6. Google Docs
  7. SkyDrive (Microsoft's "free" online offering)

I've worked with at least one company insistent on using one of these free alternatives; OpenOffice. OpenOffice was part of the "open source" craze that had people from all over the world collaborating to develop free software. In theory this may sound good, but the old phrase "knock off" still holds true. OpenOffice could do a lot of the same things Excel could do, but many things were still dramatically different, such as how the macros operated. Interoperability and compatibility issues vexed me because I had to find workarounds for techniques I had been using for years. Worse yet, is the company had some people using Excel but most using OpenOffice. Often, even minor things were different, such as cell colors. This is a big deal when people use cell colors as a key to status. If one person opened the file in Excel and another in OpenOffice red may be pink to one or the other. This could cause major confusion within an international business.

IF IT'S NOT BROKEN

As time went on, I convinced the company to at least use LibreOffice, since OpenOffice for all intents and purpose ceased development in 2002. My hope was that LibreOffice would continue to be developed to be more like Excel. While this was true in regards to LibreOffice running most of my simple macros, LibreOffice and Excel's newer versions changed things that would break some of my former projects. For example, LibreOffice 4.0 started using a different syntax for a function called indirect that I had been using for years. Any project that used that function now failed to operate. There was no workaround. The change seemed arbitrary.

Excel's own compatibility within its versions has been fairly stable since Excel 97/2003 to Excel 2010. But after developing a program for a client, I was perplexed that half his office used my program as designed and the other kept experiencing issues. We finally tracked down that one group had Excel 2010 whereas another group had Excel 2013. I hadn't tested the new program on Excel 2013 since it was fairly new and Excel has had the habit ensuring backward compatibility.

In Excel 2013, the major change was that instead of each new workbook opening in the same session/instance, they would open as independent sessions. This had benefits, especially for people using split screens/dual monitors that previously had difficulties seeing one workbook on each screen. Excel 2013 fixes this. However, by doing this Excel broke another technique I'd been using for years. As I create userform popups, I would instruct the user on the form to simply select any other open workbook to process and then press a button on the form to begin. But now, since each workbook is independent, the userform will no longer float (vbmodeless) over the different open workbooks, thus there would be no way to select the correct workbook and press the button on the userform. I had to instead, load all the open workbooks into a listbox on the userform and have the user select which one to process. That's less efficient. However, LibreOffice always had this issue, so I never could use that technique and worse yet, LibreOffice won't load a listbox in the same way so I couldn't even use that method.

CONCLUSION

As you can see, there is a lot that goes into simply making a spreadsheet function across different platforms so imagine how programmers must struggle to make other things render correctly, such as when people visit websites with different browsers and different devices.

The best thing a company can do to make their office applications run smoothly is to make sure everyone is using the same version. As demonstrated, even different versions within the same product can cause major issues.