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Why I no longer have Excel on my home laptop

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been using spreadsheet software since the 80′s (props to my dad and brother for turning me ontoVisiCalc during the Apple IIe days). I’ve also been in love with the predominant spreadsheet software, Microsoft Excel, more or less since its inception. And as scary as it might sound, I’m not overstating things when I tell you that I eagerly await the arrival of each and every one of Annie Cushing’s wondrous treatises on advanced Excel functionality.

And yet I don’t have Excel on my personal computer.

Why? Because while Excel is certainly a very powerful software application with a wide range built-in functionality as well as a plethora of outstanding bells and whistles, my experiences over the past few years has suggested to me that Excel is simply incapable of handling the immense data sets that are fast becoming the norm in today’s (and tomorrow’s) enterprise business landscape.

I first realized this a few years ago, after building some custom Excel formulas and data tables that helped automate various types of acquisition marketing analysis. The formulas worked like a dream, but as the data sets became larger and larger, the delays, crashes, and file corruptions became a frequent and very painful nuisance. Eventually, it became quite clear that in order to scale our efforts my team and I would have to shift to more powerful programming languages and data structures. Initially, it was just some simple Python scripts, but gradually the focus shifted to full-fledged applications based on object-oriented programming principles.

Mind you, a lot of the coding had to be done by other people because I was (and still am) a fairly mediocre developer. But even at my level, I find that moving away from Excel and leveraging more powerful languages like R has had a profound impact on the speed at which I can produce actionable insights, the depth of those insights and associated visualizations, and last but certainly not least, the way that I view and approach marketing and business problems. It’s been a profound and fundamental shift for me.

Granted, I still use Excel at work because that is still the standard tool for playing with data and sharing it with colleagues in a corporate setting. And I do occasionally lean on Google Spreadsheet at home for quick and dirty analysis (and for playing around with the Google Analytics API). But the bottom line is that I’ve more or less abandoned Excel and spreadsheets in general, so that I can build up my software engineering and data science chops.

Interestingly, I’ve had some people ask me why in the world I would invest so much time and effort into building entirely new skill sets like coding, applied math, and applied statistics when I could easily delegate these tasks to others. The answer to that question is really quite simple. I’m constantly meeting extremely young interns and new hires that have these skills (some have earned Master’s Degrees or even PhD’s in data science related fields) and these young kids will one day be vying for the very jobs that I (and you, the reader) want and/or currently have.

And I’m not interested in becoming obsolete.

P.S. If you think that you’re “just not a programmer” or “just not a math person” stop fooling yourself. There’s no such thing. I’m an English Literature major for goodness’ sake!

P.P.S. Thanks to Chris Le for inspiring me to write this post.

 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://www.annielytics.com/ Annie Cushing

    Thanks for the shout out, Hugo. I love having my blog summed up as an Excel treatise. :)

    • hugoguzman

      You’re very welcome, Annie! And FYI I’ve been trying to use that word in a sentence for a long, long time ; )

  • iamchrisle

    Thanks for the shout out, Hugo! It takes a lot of courage to step outside of your comfort zone and fail many times over to learn something new and unfamiliar. Courage will never become obsolete.

    • hugoguzman

      You’re welcome and you’re right about that! Heck, it was that mindset you described that got me into SEO and digital marketing in general. It’s also what allowed me to pick up the guitar at the age of 28 (still playing every day!).

  • Helgi Smessaert

    I’m a fan of the office suite with it’s VBA backbone…but like you I don’t have it on my personal computer. There are free spreadsheets for the small stuff. Other things work more quickly with scripts. Powershell is’nt half-bad. AutoiT, Python(which I don’t really master). If need be a C# program has all the visual cells you want with the arrays & datasets en some bad-ass performance. Eventually, when in doubt, C++.

    • hugoguzman

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one. My next languages after Python and R will likely be a little bit of Java, a lot of C++, and maybe a sprinkle of Go.

    • Luiz Felipe

      If you use c++ like you use csharp, then you gain no performance benefit, the power of c++ is in its fine grained memory control, return value optimization (I think dotnet does this also), copy operators, placement new, move semantics and all that “shit”.

  • notanotheraccount

    You can never escape the Excelbeast! You may think I’m joking, but as you pointed out – it is the de facto method of corporate data manipulation. All roads lead back to Excel (and eventually PowerPoint…) Good for you for branching out, now get back in the sandbox (and back to work). Have you tried PowerPivot for Excel?

    • hugoguzman

      Ha! And no, I haven’t tried it, but I will definitely check it out. Thanks for the tip!

  • johndwalton2012

    Hugo,

    Your missing the most important point about Computers 101; that is, that every piece of software has its place and its purpose. Excel is a great tool for analysis and manipulation of small to medium size datasets, but simply cannot do the larger sets of data that are, you are right, becoming the norm. The key to becoming a good programmer is knowing a number of tools that you can use, not becoming hidebound to any one of them, and, especially, knowing when to use the right tool for the job.

    • hugoguzman

      I appreciate you chiming in, John, but I beg to differ. Excel serves no purpose on my personal computer and I’m better programmer in more dynamic languages because of it. So in a sense, I suppose that you’re missing an important though admittedly subtle point from this article; that for folks that don’t come from a software/engineering background it’s a good idea to let go of crutches like Excel (which is obviously easier to use in many situations) so that they can accelerate the learning curve in other languages.

      • Michael DeMutis

        I also disagree, sometimes I need to add a list of numbers quickly, excel does this for me. :)

        • hugoguzman

          So does Google Spreadsheets, and Python, and R, and etc…

  • DaveH

    I’ve seen more fudges using Excel over the years than any
    other application bar none.

    It’s only good for small data sets, not enterprise level
    sets, that’s for databases and other tools.

    Excel flexibility in allowing just about anything to be
    output is also its biggest weakness. I’ve seen it used for sending letters,
    posters, pay slips, data mining and just about everything else you could imagine.

    It teaches people to base their reasoning on the wrong set
    of inputs, over complicated structures with no validation and it’s like
    economics – nothing defined except pre-conceived ideas.

    It’s good enough for the home user, personal bank accounts
    and so on, use for anything else and you’re in the deep end with no prospect of
    being able to prove your data is correct.

  • ShaneM

    If you want to stick with Office for data manipulation, and you need to go further than Excel, then why not try Access? Even since version 2 in the 90′s it has been a very powerful tool capable of analysis and manipulation of any size of data. If your data is really huge, just use it as a front end for SQL Server or Oracle, etc. It fully supports VBA for customization and is often part of Enterprise Office installs.

    • Luiz Felipe

      Access can easily manipulate 10 million of records per table if you don’t share the database and only use it privately on your machine. Only problem is that access it is not an database server, it does not support concurrent access and bad things happens when you put it to do some sharing and large databases.

  • http://me.damanbahner.com/ @Daman

    “And I’m not interested in becoming obsolete.” Nailed it on the head there, and additionally, learning those skills opens up a greater big picture understanding of what’s going on in your business. Great post!

    • hugoguzman

      Glad you enjoyed it, Daman, and glad to know I’m not the only one not interested in becoming obsolete!

      • http://me.damanbahner.com/ @Daman

        It’s a good reason to keep a couple of “Zuckerbergian” hoodies around :-)

  • Jon Peterson

    I follow you, but I did find myself giggling a little at the apparent (at first pass) irony of “I don’t have Excel on my personal computer because it’s ineffective for enterprise-scale data sets. But I do use it at work.”

    Just a silly observation, nothing more.