Archive for July, 2007

Eusprig 2008

Saturday, 21st July, 2007

I have been involved with Eusprig for a few years now, and have presented a few times too. My presentations are generally ‘the view from the trenches’ as a bit of a spreadsheet foot soldier. 

There are a few others who present from the same viewpoint so its always good to share war stories. Some of the presentations/papers are perhaps more scientifically researched. I find these to be the most varied – the good are stunning – I got sooo many forehead slapping ‘of course’ moments this year I almost got a headache. Some are not so remarkable, but in all cases there is something useful to take away.

Anyway for the forthcoming year I got elected as a member (not entirely sure of what, possibly the management committee?). Committees and meetings aren’t generally my cup of tea, but I think Eusprig has the potential to make a real improvement to the way people use spreadsheets. So its in my interest to help, the less spreadsheet horrors that are out there the more chance I get to work with more interesting issues and technologies.

One of the aims for Eusprig 2008 is to improve attendance from commercial spreadsheet users. Its frustrating to know that some of the organisations that could benefit most are scared to attend. But banks are scared of everything, except charging you for the privilege of investing your money for their gain of course.

My first job is assigning the Codematic web division (Mrs Smurf) to revamp the Eusprig website, in particlar to make it more attractive to these business folks. Initial thoughts were clean and simple like the codematic site, if you have other suggestions (or examples) please leave a comment. If you put too many links in your comment it will drop into moderation, but I’ll keep an eye on it, so don’t keep reposting.

We would also be interested to hear from those that went

  • what could be added to make it more certain you come back?
  • what could be binned? (politely/diplomatically of course, who knows whos reading ;-))

for those that didn’t come this year

  • What would have to be added to make it a must attend event?
  • From what you know is there anything that put you off, or would put you off?

No promises of course.

I’d say spreadsheet users are a tricky group to contact really. Lots have a finance background, but there are plenty in the engineering and marketing (and other) fields too. Any good suggestions for contacting them effectively?



Broken client

Friday, 20th July, 2007

One of Codematics clients appears to have gone bust. This is a new and painful experience. The value at stake is over 10% of annual turnover. There may be a work-around, so it may not have too big of an impact.

I have had suspicions for a while and been putting them under as much pressure as commerically possible. Anyway I squeezed a few pennies out of them before they declared themselves titsup.

Recently, after 10 years self employment I have been contemplating considering permie work. This makes that option even more appealing. To be honest I don’t think I would make a good employee, ‘hard to manage’ is the phrase that comes to mind. But everytime its VAT return time I start wondering.

It would appear that this client has had the opportunity to make a rather well planned exit into a new company, so I’m assuming the administrators will be offering us 10p in the pound or less – nice! As I understand it there is likely to be little comeback on the directors, unless they made some obvious blunder. The more I look at it the more certain I am they wont have.

Anyone else been through this misery?

When I was at college training in joinery, one of the lecturers mentioned that being able to do lapped dovetails was good, but the key skill for a self employed tradesman was how to use the small claims court to get money owed. I don’t recall such wisdom from my software development training.

As I mentioned there may be an option the reduce the pain, but I’m not holding my breath, and I won’t be able to relax till the cash is clear in the bank.

The silver lining is that they won’t ever be suing me for messing anything up, and they wont be looking for free support going forward!



Unconscious incompetence

Thursday, 19th July, 2007

Following on from previous discussions on ability I thought I would mention something I learnt years ago. I learnt it in the context of sports coaching, no idea where it came from originally.

There are 4 stages of development

Stage 1

Unconscious incompetence – you are rubbish and you don’t realise it.

Stage 2

Conscious incompetence – you are rubbish but now you are aware of it.

Stage 3

Conscious competence – when you think about it, you can do it.

Stage 4

Unconscious competence – you can do it without thinking.

Driving is a great example, and its easy to recall going through the stages (or not for some of us!!).

I think the same thing applies to development. There are lots of thing I do automatically now that I really had to think through years ago. And that was only once I’d worked out there was a problem.

Have you see it before? know where it came from originally? useful?

I’m not sure you could say what stage you were at in a large field, but for small areas you probably could.

any thoughts?



Whos the host? (long)

Wednesday, 18th July, 2007

I remember watching something on telly about these large fish (or whales or sharks or something) that play host to lots of small creatures. The system works well with the little creatures providing hygiene style services for the big fish. Overall they work better togther than apart. The big fish chooses the direction though.

I’ve always though of the eco-system that exists around Microsofts products to be a bit like this. Many of us are a part of this whether we realise it or not, it is possible to not be, for example by focusing on open source or Mac stuff. Me, I’m definitely a part of it.

In simple terms I provide add-on services to higher end spreadsheet users. A big chunk of that is spreadsheet specific, and for me currently that is Excel 2000-2003. I’ve had a few sniffs of Open Office Calc work, but no cash. Lots of my work is not spreadsheet based and for that I use VB6, C/C++ and C# for any .net stuff, Essbase, Access and SQL server for dbs, but it usually interacts with spreadsheets, so that section always targets 2k – 2k3.

I was sort of expecting MS as the ‘big fish’ in this ecosystem to set the direction. And as one of those little grubber things I’ll follow along filtering plankton. (Has anyone watched Spongebob the movie?)

I thought Excel 2007 would be so compelling that a large chunk of customers would update, or at least accelerate their update plans. This would have the follow-on effect of many of us smaller members of the ecosystem updating, and between us create a synergistic effect where the more people updating, the more service providers would update and the more potential customers would update. A delicate balance for sure, just like nature. But a workable one, and one that has worked with other products and other Excel versions (Excel 97 and 2000 were probably the biggest steps). I might be missing something, but I’m not seeing this effect, are you?

The way I see it there seems to be more emphasis on us service providers to drive uptake by the add-on services we offer. That effectively leaves us to cover the risks of poor update take-up. Its like the big fish is not setting the direction anymore, but the tiddlers are leading the way. But deep down we know the big fish is not forced to follow us. Ask anyone who created O2k3 products with simple commandbar interfaces.

The integration story between VS2008 VSTO, Sharepoint and Office 2007 certainly looks good, but is there a market there yet for us independent service providers? If not when? (JobServe is currently showing 2 VSTO job ads, both for permies).

It feels like we are expected to start working with this tech without confirmed orders (or any hope of orders almost!), in the hope that that will somehow encourage people to update to 2007.

Maybe I’m thinking too short term (I would be happy to think further ahead (like MS), if my bank balance was more like MS’s), but I need sight of a viable market before I invest time and effort in technology. I won’t earn a penny from Excel 2007 in 2007 (the opposite in fact), and I don’t see any of my current clients or companies like them moving in 2008. So for me the whole Office 2007 thing represents a zero or negative value proposition for the next 12-18 months minimum.  By which time talk will be of Office 14, and that could well undermine any potential 2007 opportunities.

So my questions are these:

  1. should we be driving uptake this technology somehow?
  2. should we be moving to more up to date clients?
  3. If we dump our current laggard clients:
  4. will the new ones be more valuable?
  5. what will our old clients do?
  6. will the new ones be a good long term bet?
  7. which market will have the more attractive competitive landscape?
  8. is there some happy intermediate approach?

 I guess I am seeing the early adopter/laggard thing in all its gory detail. Sadly I feel a bit like I’m the one in the chasm, as all the stuff I currently work with has been marked for retirement, and yet no fee paying customers have adopted the ‘replacements’.

My big concern now is that the Excel market is so technically diverse it splinters apart, and we are all forced to take sides. (Excel 97-2003 and VBA (90+% of Excel?) v Excel 2007 and VSTO (<5%?)). Dont get me wrong I think the technology is great, I would much prefer to work in .net and XML/Excel, but I just don’t see the market. Microsoft really has some work to do to make that market in my opinion.

I think what we need right now is a mop up exercise, an Excel (or Open Office Calc??/ Gnumeric??) to unite the majority onto a common platform. Something that will be a sustainable target for service providers. Excel 2007 with its incompatible interface and file formats is not it. I really hope SP1 fixes the interface at least. This consolidation version needs to be pretty simple to update too, and offer features that will make a ton of people want it. Personally I think a new integrated compliance toolset, and some decent VBAIDE updates would encourage both ends of the market.

What do you think? Are you seeing increased demand for Office 2007? (its been released almost 9 months now, and hyped for a year before that).

cheers (and sorry for the long post)


Access hurdle

Tuesday, 17th July, 2007

At Eusprig this year Dean Buckner of the FSA made a comment that struck a nerve.

He said (roughly) there has always been a hurdle to using Access, its not quite as easy to get going with as Excel. People tend to need to know a bit more about software to use Access, and that keeps many away from Access. His comment was that that hurdle has been breached, and use of Access is now widespread.

Thats exactly what I am seeing, and I am undecided whether it is good or not (so was Dean). The image I have is of a dam being breached first by a trickle and then by a gushing torrent. And that is what I am seeing, people get past the basics, understand simple tables and queries and they are off, creating Access monsters with no design and no documentation and little thought just like the spreadsheet monsters they build.

I’m not dissing either product, just making the point that the issue is the people and the processes, not the tools, that cause the creation of these hard-to-work-with monsters.

My comment was ‘Access is the new Excel’, and next year we will be talking about the risks associated with uncontrolled Access use. Anyone else seeing similar?

Anyone got a strong view on which is better/worse? (I suspect I think Access is better because it has more structure, but it would depend on the actual usage I think.)



Eusprig 2007 slides

Tuesday, 17th July, 2007

Here are my slides from this years event, on the codematic site.

spreadsheet hell

(right click save as – done in powerpoint 2003, let me know if any bits don’t work)

The garden/ field slide is the IS department v End User computing – see if you can guess which is which!

(any feedback very welcome) 



Spreadsheet assets

Monday, 16th July, 2007

Tom Grossman made a great comment at Eusprig this year.

He pointed out that if a person who costs 200k USD a year (which is a salary in the region of 40-50k GBP (100k USD) plus overhead type costs), if such a person spends 3 months building a spreadsheet, then the organisation has an asset valued at 50k USD (25k GBP) (on a historical cost basis). Many exec level cars are assets of this kind of value. Consider the different level and type of maintenance and management those 2 assets get.

Great observation I reckon, what do you think?



Eusprig 2007

Saturday, 14th July, 2007

Another superb event. There seems to be an increasing buzz around the conference, Eusprig and the spreadsheet risk world. Which is more like the End user Computing (EUC) risk world these days.
All the vendors and industry analysts (it is now an industry and it does have analysts!)( EUC compliance/quality) are reporting significant increased activity. Maybe its time to dust off XLAnalyst and release a new version.

Its always a relief to get get confirmation of a feeling. I was third to present, and the third to mention the explosion of Access databases, glad its not just me.

Dean Buckner from the FSA, always provides a frank and fascinating insight into the world of regulators and the world of the city, big banks and traders. Every time I attend Eusprig I wonder if I should stop avoiding the city and get involved with the big scary stuff down there. Then I squeeze into a sweaty, creaky, rammed tube, stand up for the full journey and remember why I left London. My mates transport their sheep and cattle in better conditions. Mind you the journey south by train is pretty good these days (thanks Virgin trains).

As usual, virtually all the papers were excellent, and I think pretty much every one gave me something to think about.
I now have a ton of follow up to do.
Highlights for me, apart from far too much beer on Thursday night:
A suggestion in Steve Powell and Barry Lawsons paper that maybe the real ‘risk’ was the time lost working with sub-optimal spreadsheets. Errors are certainly there in live spreadsheets, but the impact is often not dramatic. A fact re-affirmed by Dean, when he mentioned that most processes are performed multiple times, by multiple people, often in different ways, and that this seems to catch many errors. Makes me wonder if there is some mild chaos theory thing going on.

New TLA, courtesy of David Colver of OPERIS:
MUT. I so wish that could have been MUTT. (woof)
(Model Under Test)

A couple of people mentioned something which I kind of thought a bit, but hadn’t worked out properly. Peoples actual spreadsheeting ability is often inversely proportional to their perceived ability. Basically many intermediate level users think they know most of a small subject. Advanced users realise that they know a lot, but they also realise the topic area is massive. Puts me in mind of ‘The Humble Programmer’ by Dijkstra.

also got a couple of new products I need to take a look at:
Resolver– looks well neat, combines a grid with Python, with much tighter integration than Excel/VBA. It has proper data sheets just like I was on about a few months ago. Are you guys stalking me? (joke – but the Resolver folks were keen for feedback and ideas, so grab the demo and get playing). I’m going to learn Python especially.
Expresso – a way of collaborating with spreadsheets – if I had any mates I’d try this ;-)

Someone also mentioned a trend of sharing chunks of spreadsheets via googledocs. Which is just another online service which I can no longer access because I forgot my password. (I’m also locked out of the Microsoft partner extranet for the same reason, and AccountingWeb, and the Eusprig yahoo group web interface, and a ton of other things). I’m looking forward to AccountingWebs soon to be published report on password managing software, I need it (assuming I can access it of course!!).

‘Frankensheet’ struck a chord with a few people, as did this slide:

crap formula

I’ll put the full slides on the Codematic site in the next few days. Mind you its just mainly pictures of none spreadsheets.

Eusprig 2008 will probably be in Greenwich/south England, despite our attempts to get it back to Dublin, so be sure to clear the first couple of weeks of July to attend. I think this is a ‘must attend’ event for anyone serious about spreadsheet development. Not just for the excellent lecture content, but also for the chance of informal discussions around spreadsheet quality with some of the leading thinkers around.

One of the saddest things I heard was that some banks/financial institutions wouldn’t attend because they didn’t want to ‘appear’ to have a problems with spreadsheets. HELLOOO? We KNOW you have a problem, just own up then we can fix it together.  

 If you were there leave a comment with your thoughts. (what happens in the pub, stays in the pub right? ;-)



Ribbon for Visual Studio

Friday, 6th July, 2007

Harlan asks:

‘what would you all think of MSFT replacing the Visual Studio UI with a ribbon?’

I’ve always thought the ribbon is a novice interface, although MS disagree. In fact I said to the ribbon team that I would accept it was not a beginners UI as soon as it was incorporated into VS.

As I see it developer/professional tools as far as MS are concerned = SQL Server and VS (C# of course). Amateur/ non pro tools is Office and everything else. Devs get a decent UI that they can customise to improve their productivity, amateurs get the ribbon so they can’t confuse themselves (and the VBAIDE from decades ago!).

I’m assuming Orcas (VS 2008) doesn’t have the ribbon??

The big shame is that MS did not cater for the wide breadth of usage, and user ability, working on the Office platform this time around. I’m still hoping for something useful in SP1.

What does everyone else reckon?



The dreaded machine migration

Wednesday, 4th July, 2007

Last year I bought a new Sony laptop, but I never moved onto it because it was so badly set up. (full of crapware, no discs etc)

I finally bit the bullet last weekend to rebuild it from scratch to be usable. I have so many customisations and specific settings I was absolutely dreading this.

The final kick came when the touchpad of my trusty Samsung really started playing up. It had a mini fit during my Excel User conf presentation last year, but I assumed that was the heat. Remember the heat? I’m presenting at Eusprig next week and didn’t want a repeat performance. (of the heat or the flaky touchpad)

I tried to move everything using Norton Ghost, but it failed (badly) (could have been operator error). I had heard Acronis could be used to back up from one machine and restore to another. So I bought it (60 quid ish) and tried it. It took about 8 hours!, but it worked. Yea! I have my full set up on my new(ish) laptop, and I havent had to install a ton of stuff and change hundreds of default settings. There was a bit of excitement around getting the right drivers, but the Sony site had it covered.

I have always dreaded moving from one machine to another, but having got Acronis working, I’m already planning my next (hardware) upgrade. No idea if it works with software that needs activation based on hardware, I don’t use that stuff.

Not sure what to do with the Samsung, it will probably be reborn as a Linux box. (maybe with my Windows set up as a WMWare machine?).That Dell/Linux thing doesn’t seem to have panned out as well as I was expecting.

Anyone else got other/less painful approaches to migrating?