It feels a bit weird to write a post about MS Excel, but I feel compelled to and I think it’s because I am a feeling a bit defensive of it lately. People love to hate Excel. From software developers to data analysts and many other professionals, there’s usually a dig taken when the use of it comes up. Usually the comment is in the form of “Don’t use Excel, use my favourite software/database etc”.
I’ve seen many examples of this and I’m sure you have too. You may even be the author of a few of those comments :P.
I’m getting better at using Python for example, and I can see how superior it is in many ways for doing the same things I used to do in Excel and of course many things that I could never do before, but to me Excel is but one tool of many. Tableau is pretty cool too and I’ve found that when I am in “Tableau mode”, I am doing things I couldn’t do in Excel. But there’s no way I could work without the trusty spreadsheet altogether ! Of course, Excel can be cumbersome and flawed, but every piece of technology is so in some way .
In this post I’ll put a few notes down on why I still love using it and hopefully this will enlighten some folks and rekindle a bit of Excel data-handling joy for others.
It works out of the box
This is pretty useful. Whether its the first time you’ve ever used the software, or you’re a guru and opening a fresh install on a new laptop, Excel just works. No installs, extensions, upgrades, dependencies etc. to first slog through. Up in running right away, every time.
In 99% of cases, old spreadsheets just work. I’ve not yet had the experience of opening an old spreadsheet from years back and not had it work.
Its popularity means that if someone uses a computer, they most likely have access to Excel, or some software that can read the file. If you want to share your work with someone – Send, open, done!
Easy learning curve, broad audience
Most people can figure out Excel to a point that meets their needs. Whether you are running high-end analysis on complex systems, or balancing your household budget, Excel is there. Generally if you have basic arithmetic you can start. If you understand the difference between a relative and absolute reference, you can complete beginner to intermediate tasks. If you understand what functions are and how to use them, you’re pretty much an advanced user. If you do get stuck, there’s extensive documentation, free and paid tutorials and not to mention many Excel-fluent people all around you. I’d wager most companies have at least one Excel buff among them.
Let’s use Python as a counter example. If I want to make a graph and then customise it, there’s Python, Pandas (potentially Seaborn too) and Matplotlib to figure out to get it looking half-decent. And this is all to do what one can do fairly easily in Excel using minimal steps.
And talking about graphs…
Ugly defaults – beautiful customisation
You can make pretty awesome custom data visualisations using Excel.
Don’t believe me? Check out Dr Stephanie Evergreen’s work. Her blog and books changed how I see Excel’s reporting capability.
When there’s a problem, often times Excel shows you errors all over the place. Sure, it may not tell you what the problem is, but it’s easy enough to trace it. When there’s a #REF or N/A value, you see it immediately because you are looking at your data table. Like, literally looking at it.
It’s data, computation and view all rolled into one. The beauty of this that you see your whole system and changes are instant. Change data or calculations and the outputs are available in real time.
If you still don’t like Excel, that’s a-ok. I’m not trying to change your mind. I understand why you don’t like it, and in many cases I agree with you. There are good reasons why other software and paradigms explicitly don’t do all of the above, and there are many cases where all these points are very terrible and could lead to injury or death. I get it. My hope is that if you don’t like Excel, you’ll at least pause before deriding its use and consider that maybe there are some other factors at play which makes it a decent tool for the job.
If you do like Excel, right on! Be curious, learn to use other tools if you can, and keep Excel-ling. [Had to say it 🙂 ].