Sunday 28 December 2014

Spreadsheet grunts

On Saturday last I drove down to Cork to pick up Dau.II and her Christmas clobber and deliver a 20kg Belfast sink (which is another story); all of which was hard to handle by public transport.  We also gave a lift home to another Co.Carlow girl and her Christmas clobber which included a cello in a hard case. The Toyota Yaris was brim full.

Dau.II is in the process of extending her skill-set from being a plongeur, burrito-piler and health&safety liaison officer at her cafe in Cork into more of a management role.  It will require her to learn the rudiments of ExCel, the Microsoft spreadsheet programme.  This is one of the many things that is more or less beyond my competence which I am nevertheless required to teach at The Institute. I make no bones about this ignorance, and believe that having me "in charge" is probably a better learning experience for the students than having an 'expert' rambling off with the fairies into the subtleties of the software, while assuming that everyone knows the basics.  ANNyway, I am in a position to give the daughter some pointers about how to best use ExCel to produce: accounts for the accountant; product lists for the suppliers; rosters for the workers and optimistic graphs for the financial backers. As we motored out of Cork towards Waterford, I was telling my two young passengers about what ExCel can do because I couldn't open a laptop to show them.  And I realised that my experience with spreadsheets goes back a long, long way to before spreadsheet programmes existed and it was all done on large sheets of paper spread out over a desk.

Back in 1980, I was making steady progress through graduate school but perennially short of cash.  My sister was working in London for Time-Life Books on their Good Cook series.  She blagged me a job in Time-Life European Head Office in Amsterdam as a Summer intern helping formulate the budget for the next financial year. And yes, in those days interns were paid, even by Megacorp. We would generate tables like this:
Jan Feb Mar . . . Nov Dec
Africa $10m $10m $12 . . . $12 $20
MidEast $25m $20m $20m . . . $20 $35m
N.Amer $100 $120m $140m . . . $180 $240m
Etc. $ $ $ . . . $ $
. . . then make photocopies and send faxes, so that the management could have an informed discussion.  They would come back with changes: "Reduce the spend in Africa over the Summer by 10%, but keep the row and column totals the same by allocating to surplus equally between the Middle East and South America."  The geographical spreadsheet would have to be reconciled with the product spreadsheet so eventually the Vice-President of Sales in Singapore would know how much she had available to promote the Great Generals series across AsiaPac. Large sums of money would be bandied about the boardroom and four of us quants would have to recalculate everything from the broad-brush scribbles, changes and counter-changes that the big knobs were thrashing out. It was quite good fun with stressful bursts of activity interspersed with cubicle-world idleness and chatter.  Our line-manager, a very nice woman called Bonnie answered to a fearsome buzz-cut Texan who had been to Business School - you could tell because he could operate a desk-calculator with three fingers. But to do this he had to take a deep breath . . . tense his jaw . . . position his hand just so . . . and . . . key-punch! We could beat him one-fingered if there were fewer than 5 numbers to sum.

Round about the same time, Dan Bricklin was a student in Harvard Business School taking "Three-Finger-Calculator 101" and watching one of his professors generating the numbers for a table that grew to fill the blackboard. When the Prof had to make a change, it required a flush of interrelated changes spreading out across the board. Bricklin's insight was to realise that this could be done far better by the computers like the Apple II which were coming into homes and offices across the Western World in the last years of the 1970s.  He created the first brilliantly intuitive and idiot-proof spreadsheet program called Visicalc, which was launched in June 1979. The reason why ExCel columns are labelled A B C, while the rows are 1 2 3 is because Bricklin thought it would be a good idea for Visicalc. First-comer Visicalc dominated the market, seeing off several knock-offs and alternatives and over the next 4 years sold 1 million copies. Then it was abruptly knocked off its perch byLotus 1-2-3, whose developers had learned from the mistakes made by Visicalc and its competitors. When Bricklin's company was consumed by Lotus in April 1985 he got a job there as a developer. In the 1980s the market was far from saturated and there was lots of market to share, so it was a field day for competent and creative programmers.

Lotus 1-2-3 was in its turn annihilated by ExCel: developed by Microsoft  and compatible with the standards - MS-Word and Powerpoint - that we still recognise 20+ years later as being the essential tools for academia and business. I'm not stupid but I still can't reliably persuade ExCel to draw a 2-dimensional scatterplot - so I'm inclined to label that software poorly designed and counter-intuitive.  Visicalc and the spreadsheet concept could have gone any direction in 1985 and it went to hell in a bucket.  But it still beats tricking about with a pencil and a desk-calculator.

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