The next product I’d build? Excel, for everything.
woah - this is pretty much exactly what we're building... product not publicly launched yet, but v keen to pick your brains and give you a demo?
Benn I love this. I work in a very Excel-focused environment: I'm in a data team working alongside a small army of economic researchers who speak Excel & Powerpoint. Over the last few years my opinion on Excel has gone through something like the Gartner hype cycle, from the peak of possibility, through the trough of disillusionment, and finally on to the plateau of acceptance.
My general feeling on it is in fact both of your viewpoints - the best and worst thing about Excel is that it can do everything. I have seen horrors. However, it is incredibly empowering for smart people who know what they want to achieve and don't want to deal with the orgy of frustration that comes with figuring out how to get started with Python ("What does 'No module named pandas' mean?") and in all honesty don't have the time or inclination to learn how to write code. They have more valuable things to do.
The role I (and my team) fills is often a kind of guide to making Excel behave well in the context of a larger data process. We help people get data into Excel from various databases & APIs, then define some standards on what the output of some spreadsheeting should look like so that it can feed into some other downstream process. A kind of data sherpa role. And it works! We end up with analysts who can work in the way they're comfortable, can flex the middle part of their process as much as they like, and then produce results that fit into databases and get surfaced to paying customers in products built by 'real' developers.
Also I am 100% with you on the trouble with AWS. I came from that Windows & Excel background and started working more with Python & SQL and the barrier to entry to working in the cloud is enormous. You need to learn how to write the kind of code that works in the cloud, what event-based architecture is, how to provision infrastructure, how to use Linux, what CI/CD is, what containers are and why they're useful... the list goes on.
Music to my ears, Ben! You know, there are many people whose entire careers are driven by the line of thoughts you mentioned here--billions of people programming computers without coding. I've been on this path for a long time and it's been worth it! I wish there was a community of people where we could discuss these ideas and and try them. Anyone knows of such community?
Two random thoughts:
1) Is this sort of like VBA, the built-in Excel language that you can "macro" tasks to make them endlessly adjustable.
2) Is this like RPA, the "low-code" solution that creates logical workflows on any computer UI use case based upon your task-steps?
To me, those are the two most similar sorts of things.
But I also want to push-back and say that there are advanced spreadsheet users and less capable users.
It is easy to say Excel is great and mighty and powerful, and it is true, but the detractors are 1000% correct. A great Excel user is like a great programmer, and many of them are well-compensated (think consultants and accountants). A bad one... Well... They are why some analytics professionals despise spreadsheets.
And the more powerful the tool, the more opportunities to misuse it.
(Also, TBH, I think a real opportunity to bridge the gap between Excel lovers and haters would be better tracking of the history of data transformations in Excel. This would allow mistakes to be audited more easily, and allow better transformation/auditing of Excel processes into code. G-Suite today often tracks the full history, but imagine being able to understand processes as gscript code and auditing problems rather than having to check each historical log as to what went wrong. Then imagine being able to plug this into Github for established spreadsheet processes for end to end tracking.)
Hi Ben - What did you mean by "Slack, but more like email." (footnote 7)?
Most people don’t understand that this is what the Salesforce Platform actually is.
great article! In my own observations, both excel and your typical source code project contain the same two elements, data and the logic that interoperates with it. They are intertwined. However with excel, we see the data front and center, with the logic hiding in the background (i.e. behind the cell) whereas in software programs, emphasis is the reverse. The data structures used are often hidden (i.e. information hiding) and code/interfaces are front and center. each is emphasizing one side of the coin over the other. Seems like numbers are more familiar than algorithms to most people.
Thanks Benn, great read as usual!
This seems appropriate https://youtu.be/UBX2QQHlQ_I
What are your thoughts on me powerautomate in this space? It does many of the things I often do in excel (collect and mashup datasets, send custom reports to the right people, etc). I work in a large finance org, and they’ve banned anyone not in the central team from writing power apps. Which makes me think there are enough tech professionals who still think excel is evil, and we shouldn’t let anyone who isn’t already a coder anywhere near anything that looks like coding (and in their view I know this includes excel)
https://www.serverless.com/ solved some of the AWS Lambda issues you described.
Great post! It reminds me of the “beyond spreadsheets” ideas kicking around for awhile in my brain...
A couple of interesting takes on automation if you haven’t seen them: Wayscript (wayscript.com) and Airplane (airplane.dev)
Lol anyone remember AlphaSheets?
I think Notion is also on this path.