Lately I have been involved in building tools to help our engineers work and collaborate better. Building algorithms is tricky: you want to track your progress, review quality before printing the chip, understands what you’re doing wrong, compare and optimize tons of configurations…
Would it be have been easier using spreadsheets ? No, but it is refreshing to entertain the question!
Spreadsheets are how normal people gather and analyse data. Personally, I love them, they are very powerful and amazingly flexible. If you’re building a system competing against someone’s spreadsheets, the odds are not in your favour. (missing link to one of Joel Spolski’s blog posts explaining it)
Here are some advice to people replacing internal spreadsheets:
- The single best advantage an application will have over a spreadsheet is that it is centralised. The killer feature of your application may be the ability to share links to a view of the data.
- Interactivity should be top-notch. Implement a better filtering logic that could be done in a spreadsheet, make it easy to drill down…
- Manage what information you show. Discuss with users to find our what should appear upon hover, or how to categorize and layout the data.
- Your application should always allow exporting data. If your application is not extensible, some just won’t use it. Expose an API, show an export button… If needed, show people how they can develop an alternative frontend using a spreadsheet
- Spreadsheets don’t need maintenance. They don’t need IT, they don’t need engineers to extend them. Of course there are usually buggy, not tested properly and impossible to version… Still, if you’re developing an internal application, bet on technologies your team is confortable with, and invest some effort in automating everything.
- Spreadsheets are hard to replace at least because (1) they were usually born without clear requirements, and you will need those. (2) their owner/writer may not want have the skills or the motivation to work on the new system. (3) business logic can’t be outsourced to IT / out of touch contributors. If you don’t find know the answers to those challenges, stick with spreadsheets a little while more…