Spreadsheet Hell

Here is a paper I have been working on: spreadsheet hell (pdf (with minor edits))

Its about some of the issues we face as spreadsheet developers and users. Its more focused towards the ongoing maintenance issues rather than actual development.

It’s been submitted to Eusprig for consideration (over an hour before the deadline!), should find out by the end of the month if its accepted or not.

Any comments welcome, either here or by email. 

I’ve tried to mention everyone who helped, thank you!

If you think I’ve missed you (and you weren’t being anonymous) drop me a note, or leave a comment.



14 Responses to “Spreadsheet Hell”

  1. Dermot Balson Says:

    I think you’ve summarised it nicely, Simon

    For me, working at the coalface, the big problem is that new users learn from their immediate seniors, who were new 1/2 years ago, and both are over confident because they have no objective benchmarks to measure themselves by. Usually in a business, the really senior people provide objective judgement, but they are often too old to know much about spreadsheets.

    Training courses are too often given by graduates of the same courses, who never actually build spreadsheets,and who know little or nothing about risk.

    Perhaps what we need is an objective skill test, even if it is approximate, to enable users to put their abilities in perspective.

  2. Ross Says:

    Good Simon,
    2 small things, should (Caroll, 2005)…. be Caroll(2005)… on the first page, and of pp3 “This paper make”, “this paper makes”?

    I particularly liked the Key Man Issues (KMI, ;-)) – I’ve seen that loads – it is a big problem, and I don’t think I have seen anyone bring it up formally – I may have missed it before.

    Good Stuff.

  3. Simon Says:

    Dermot – thanks. That is a very good point about skills(/bad habits) transfer, I hadn’t onsidered that.

    David Chadwick demoed a spreadsheet he uses to assess skill/risk at last years Eusprig, it had some great traps for the unwary, not sure it would have the power to overcome the arrrogance of youth though.

    I wonder if its a bit like driving, they say you’re not a real driver till you’ve had a crash. Maybe you’re not a real developer until you’ve had an embarassing mistake brought to light in a big/important meeting or audit.

    A test would be good, or a series of challenging spreadsheets maybe? Maybe the ‘spreadsheet olympics’ idea on the Eusprig list could provide some?

  4. Simon Says:

    Thanks, well spotted. Its not like there were a lot of references to get right!
    Yeah the key man dependency issue was/is the pet rant of a mate of mine, and does seem rife in Excel/VBA work.

    I did a multi dev Excel VBA project once, it was a nightmare, we spent more time sorting out who had the master bits of each component and merging versions than actually developing. I think either one of us could have done it faster alone.


  5. Marcus Says:

    Hi Simon,

    Nice summary.

    I’ll also raise the key-man dependency flag. I’m working on a project right now of migrating a series of Excel and Access files with 40K LoC across them – and there’s only one employee who really understands it and (surprise, surprise) nothing in the way of technical documentation.

    All the best in Seattle. Give my best to Bill ;-)

    Cheers – Marcus

  6. Will Riley Says:


    I agree with your sentiments. I suppose I am one of those key men. It’s fairly unavoidable in many SMEs with a small number of employees though. In that scenario you’re so right in saying that documantation is a key factor. I know mine has improved as the business has (gradually) seen the value in what the MI/BI area is able to deliver.



  7. Simon Says:

    I think this key man dependency thing is a consequence of the rush rush rush mentality. I really would not blame the individuals in most cases. I’ve never been given time to document something properly – the minute its through testing and out the door the next project starts. I always say well shall I doc this or dev that? dev always wins (thats what I like about Excel/VBA in fairness)
    The Seattle thing is still a couple of weeks away, its after the MVP thing, of course due to NDAS we’ll never find out if there is much common content!
    Will, its a universal problem in my experience, interesting suggestion about influencing the business as they see the value. That warrants some thought I reckon.

  8. MikeC Says:

    I’m very much in the same situation as Will – though not at an SME. I’m pretty sure that 25,000+ employees disqualifies a company from that category…

    This week, I had Monday and Tuesday off due to sickness. Despite certain processes being fully documented (to the level of press THIS button, enter a date HERE etc), none of my colleagues (within the company’s MI department) felt confident enough to try and deal with certain business-critical reports that had to be out on Monday. So they went out after I returned on Thursday. Admittedly, although being documented, I had never had the opportunity to take anyone through the process to demonstrate it. So they opened the first workbook, saw a couple of userforms pop up, panicked and ran away as fast as King Arthur facing the Killer Bunny.

    This is a direct result of 2 things – one of which Simon mentioned above.
    1. “Rush-rush” – don’t show anyone else how to use that, you need to dev this. And they don’t have time to be shown anyway.
    2. Cost. Why pay someone else with dev skills when we have Mike? Despite pushing for 2 years that we need someone else with at least rudimentary VBA skills that can be developed “on the job”, there is still no redundancy in case I’m hit by a bus.

    But like the Murphy’s – I’m not bitter….! ;-)

  9. Simon Says:

    next of all you’l be accused of trying to make yourself indispensible. (I’ve seen it happen). Maybe you can use this as a bit more leverage to get them to register the risk?
    I dont see it as redundancy, more developmental, for you mentoring someone, and for them building useful skills.

  10. Ross Says:

    Had an interview back end of last week and this very topic came up (Key Man) – I looked very sad explaining that i had a friend who has written a paper on it!

  11. Simon Says:

    I think what you meant to say was:
    “Key man, funny you should mention that, I have just been *contributing* to a paper on that very subject.”

  12. Simon Murphy Says:

    WE have just wrtten a paper covering that..

  13. Eusprig 2007 « Smurf on Spreadsheets Says:

    […] https://smurfonspreadsheets.wordpress.com/2007/03/07/spreadsheet-hell/ […]

  14. I, too, am in spreadsheet hell « Number Cruncher Says:

    […] a little too strong for the situation I’m about to describe. But I just stumbled across an old post in Smurf on Spreadsheets linking to a paper written by the author, which struck an immediate chord with me. Without […]

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