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Mac classics: Confessions of an Excel geek

Many years ago—before many of you were born, I’ll guess—I began a long-running love affair. It has persisted through college, graduate school, a series of jobs, and moves to many different states. And yes, it even survived my wedding. I admit it: I love Excel.

Sure, I’ve been tempted over the years by the glitz of Numbers, the sheer power of Ragtime, and the freeness of OpenOffice. But after the briefest of forays with each of them, I knew they were not for me.

So why has my attachment to Excel lasted so long? For that answer, I need to go back in time.

We go way back

Excel was introduced in September of 1985; it was available on the Mac for over two years before the first Windows version was released. I was in my final year of college, studying Finance, using Lotus 1-2-3 for my spreadsheets. As I recall, we had no Macs at my school, so I had little exposure to Excel.

I finally ran across it the following year, when I entered business graduate school at a new university. Again, there weren't many Macs to be found, but there was a small lab that held a few. I was assigned a project for a professor, and spent quite a few hours in that lab, alternatively cussing at (because it wasn't Lotus 1-2-3) and praising (for the same reason) Excel. At the end of the project, I was hooked: Excel seemed to think the way I thought; as I became more proficient with it, it seemed to know exactly what I wanted it to do.

Over the next year, I found myself in the lab a lot; my graduate school used case studies, and every single one of them required tons of financial exhibits. In November of 1987, Microsoft released Excel for Windows, and it was on my home PC shortly thereafter. (I still recall the dent the purchase made in my food budget.) Through the end of grad school, Excel and I really cemented our relationship. There's no doubt it helped me get through the program as well as I did: Excel let me run through countless scenarios while I figured out the solution I wanted to pursue.

The real world

After grad school, I took a job with IBM, crunching numbers for the mainframe division. I honestly can’t recall whether IBM used Lotus 1-2-3 (the company hadn’t bought Lotus yet) or Excel, but my needs were fairly basic, generally consisting of simple budget and equipment-cost worksheets. It wasn’t until my next career step—I got a job in Apple’s treasury department—that my use of Excel exploded.

My job required me to work a lot with Apple’s dealers, training them on how to run a business. (Because Apple essentially loaned these companies money to purchase inventory, the company had a strong interest in keeping them in business.) That’s when Excel and I became real teammates.

My work partner and I developed a full-blown application within Excel that we distributed to Apple’s dealers. The application allowed dealers to play what-if scenarios without knowing anything about spreadsheets or finance. Without Excel, we would have needed to hire programmers to create such an application. Thanks to Excel, two finance guys with zero programming experience were able to create it instead.

After Apple, I bounced around to a couple of smaller companies, where my Excel skills were put to the test. I was responsible for developing everything from annual business plans to building layouts to daily cash reports to compensation plans to attendance-tracking procedures. I used Excel for all of that and more.

For example, at one point I needed to put a bunch of trade-show floor plans up on our company's website. The commercial software tools available for that kind of thing were incredibly expensive. Instead, I used Excel to create a template that our event managers could use to easily draw a floor plan (using cell borders and shading). We’d then save those floor plans out as HTML documents and post them on the Web. It was crude but effective—and cost-efficient.

Fast-forward to today, and I still use Excel regularly in my role as major domo at Many Tricks. Our sales report is a series of Excel sheets saved as webpages for easy remote access. I also use Excel to create custom invoices, prepare bids for site licenses, and much more. Although I’m much less of a power user than I once was, Excel is still a key business partner.

Excel through the years

Excel was the first spreadsheet app that gave the user control—through adjustable fonts, type sizing, and borders—over the appearance of cells. Before Excel, I could easily tell when something had been created in Lotus 1-2-3, because all of its worksheets looked the same. But with Excel, I could create spreadsheets that not only conveyed useful information but also did so in a way that was easier to read than anything else out there.

I’d be lying if I said I could remember even ten of the new features that Excel has added over the years. I do know that every time I said to myself, “Gee, I wish Excel could really do this,” Microsoft would release a new version that did exactly that.

I have a few complaints about Excel. The user interface seems to change with each release just for the sake of it, which in my view has rarely been a good thing. The removal of macro support in Office 2008 was a critical mistake—fortunately, Microsoft recognized it as such and brought the feature back in Excel 2011. Charting in Excel is much harder than it should be; Numbers creates nicer-looking charts (with less work).

Still I use it. Because I’m a finance guy at heart, I’ll continue to watch the Mac spreadsheet market, and test any new prospects that look interesting. But Excel has a nearly 30-year head start on those packages, which makes it tough for newcomers to compete. I’ve spent so many hours using Excel that it’s as ingrained in my brain as my native language is. It’s hard to imagine an application that could ever replace Excel.

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