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Excel Alternatives vs Excel - Data Management Chicago | DataScopic

Brace yourself. I haven’t presented myself like this before.

What’s Got My Hackles Up?
Over the past few months I’ve mentioned Excel in certain situations and it’s been met with contempt and borderline hostility.

This started with a conference call that was marketed as: “You aren’t still using Excel, are you?”

Most of the hostility comes from smug developers who are deep into coding, web-based applications, relational databases, and managing really large projects (many millions of records). Just mention Excel and here come the smarmy expressions and vehement insistence that Excel is the wrong way to go.

Why the contempt for Excel?
When it’s used as more than a spreadsheet, things can get complicated.

  • Excel has weaknesses in regards to collaboration—unless you are (or have access to) an Excel developer.
  • Excel isn’t a relational database. People do use Excel that way, but it’s admittedly clumsy—unless you get an Excel developer involved to have Excel be the front end of an actual database.
  • Controlling user input can be challenging in Excel, and is a separate layer of work when creating tools in Excel.
  • Emailing Excel documents back & forth creates version control issues.
  • Building a Project Management tool in Excel? Why? There are far more powerful, existing Project Management Tools.
  • Building a CMS in Excel? Why? There are plenty of web-based ones that already exist.
  • Building a web-scraper in Excel? GEEZ! Don’t re-create the wheel. Web-scrapers already exist.
  • Scrubbing data in Excel? Why? There are SSIS, DQS, Natural Expressions, and other more powerful tools for data scrubbing.

I get it. Excel has lots of limitations.
No argument there. I’ve taken a PHP/MySQL course so that I can offer my clients Excel Alternatives that are web-based and more robust. But as I go deeper into the web-based communities, the more hostile the reaction to Excel, and very little acknowledgement that Excel does have its place.

Excel vs Excel Alternatives

It’s like going to the local hardware shop to buy a hammer and the salesperson is going to force a pneumatic nailer on you. They’re going to save your dirty soul in spite of yourself.

You want to scream, “I’ve got 5 nails at home, and don’t see much use for a hammer in the future beyond those 5 nails. I don’t need to spend 4x as much and have a fancy pneumatic nailer in my closet waiting until whenever.

Salesperson responds: Yeah, but …

Do these Excel-hating developers get that we’re all on the same side? We’re just trying to solve problems?

Create SOLUTIONS
with
the APPROPRIATE tools

Data Management is the game, Excel evangelism is not, neither is TSQL evangelism. It’s in the best interest of a client to look for and use the most powerful appropriate tool for their needs, and most appropriate for us to efficiently meet their needs? In some cases, there are wonderful Excel alternatives.  Example:

  • Random Data Generators. Often we need dummy data in order to test a solution. Excel can be used to generate, say, 200 bogus phone numbers. No. Use a Random Data Generator.
  • A client needed to configure pairings of people. There are complex solutions in Excel. No. Use a Round Robin Tournament Generator.
  • For those with the volume, complexity, cash and knowledge, Salesforce.com is beautiful.

Let’s look at a Quick & Dirty list of 11 criteria for determining the APPROPRIATENESS of using Excel or an Excel Alternative:

1.  Learning Curve

Can a new user be up & running in 3 minutes or is there a lot of hunting through menus and sub-menus, and unexplained procedures? Do you need to hire an in-house specialist to run your new application?

2.  Subscription

So many apps require monthly subscriptions starting as low as $3. Not much money but these start adding up when you’ve got a multitude of subscription apps to run your business.
(TANGENTIAL QUESTION: will they really cut you off if you forget to pay your $3?)

3.  Customization

How easy is it to move the dashboard elements around?
Change font size and color?
Add new entries to the dropdown lists?
Orient certain data vertically instead of horizontally?

4.  Knowledge Transferability

Learning the intimacies of an application means using its layout, procedures and lingo.
In Excel, a pivot table is a pivot table; OFFSET is OFFSET; the controls for a bar-graph are the same whether you go to Tim’s Budget template or Lisa’s Stock Quote Retrieval Tool

5.  Business’ Ability to Take on Specialized Knowledge

Some businesses are 1 to 3 people with no mental space for taking on something new, complicated and specialized. They want something built in Excel because they know it already.

6.  Initial Configuration

Some existing apps are created so generic that the initial configuration is painful. A company might offer, for a charge, consultation to do the configuration for the field names, calculations, graphs and summaries that you need.

7.  Ease of finding ad hoc support

With Excel, there’s high likelihood that there’s someone in your immediate circle who can offer basic support. Maybe even intermediate and expert support. There are decreased odds if someone wrote something from scratch in PHP. Some web-based app providers don’t provide any support until you subscribe above a certain level.

8.  Does the client already have the tool(s)?

Just about everyone has Excel already.
Not everyone has PHP and Apache already set up on their systems. They might not have SQL or even Access. Is the client willing to pay for the tools that aren’t free? Will they be able to afford the number of licenses that they need? Are they willing to go through the additional upheaval of the installation, configuration, integration and data migration?

9.  Level of disruption for integrating the solution into the workflow

In the middle of an intense, complex, spreadsheet-driven project, is this the time to introduce Excel Alternatives with learning curves, configuration, testing, data migration and new routines?

10.  Platform Plasticity

Is the web-based budget template built on something that can also be a commissions calculator, inventory system, diet manager, donor list, stock quote retriever, user input form, and project manager?

I'm serious!

I’m serious! We’re all on the same team, folks.

11.  The ability for a novice to build something crappy that works

When the desire for perfection has us immobilized, remember: GOOD is good enough. Crappy and functional can also be good enough.

</RANT>

This isn’t a list of excuses to proselytize for Excel. Excel is not an all-purpose tool. There are people who believe that it is, and they’re as silly as the Excel-hating developers.

This list represents things to consider when helping people find data-related solutions, eliminate and prevent crap data. If a legal pad and a stubby pencil will work, then dammit, go with the legal pad and stubby pencil.

OUR (including you) MISSION:

Keep the world’s data clean while being of service to others with the most appropriate tools.

Yeah, but …

Hammer photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc
Hell photo credit: spike55151 via photopin cc