Microsoft Excel and spreadsheets have their pro’s and con’s and can make projects and processes more complicated than necessary. I learnt this the hard way - I now know Excel’s limitations. This journey inspired me to create insightful project financial management tools for architects and engineers to make their day to day tasks easier - without needing to venture into Excel Hell.
I Love Excel
It is the most powerful and flexible tool. With Excel you can do just about anything.
When I was a teenager, I authored an Excel workbook that was used extensively to capture the quantity, species and location of wild animals being spotted from a helicopter - in order to plot, aggregate and extrapolate game populations for management purposes.
In my twenties, I developed an excel sheet with thousands of lines of VBA code that automatically created the addressing, control grouping and emergency testing for over 100 000 networked (DALI) light fittings at Heathrow Terminal 5. The spreadsheet allowed us to configure the control system for terminal T5A, T5B, T5C, the multi-storey car park, the inter-terminal railway system, the underground station and the hotel - using a single person instead of a team of 20. We won the international DALI award (and ironically couldn't fly out from T5 to Germany to accept it because of the opening day fiasco with the baggage system!).
In my thirties I again turned to Excel to develop a workbook that identified, tracked and reported on thousands of documents that were required for the certification of buildings under the Green Star process (similar to BREEAM). The VBA excel sheet could even automatically collate, stamp and bookmark the various PDF's into a single submission document - allowing a team of 3 green building consultants to do the work of 30.
So I don't think it is an understatement if I say that I know Excel.
I Hate Excel
And it is precisely because I know Excel, that I know its limitations. Excel's best feature is that it is so flexible you can do anything with it. Excel's worst feature is that it is so flexible you can do anything with it.
I can't tell you the number of times things have fallen apart in my fancy spreadsheets because of a simple change. A row added or a column deleted. A name spelt differently. A file duplicated on the server. Different updates to different emailed copies of the same file. Broken links. Chaos!
Many of the small and medium architectural, engineering, project management and quantity surveying firms that we work with at Fresh Projects were experiencing the same Excel Hell. Typically the business would be managing a series of spreadsheets to track:
- expense claims
- leave applications and balances
- project fee calculations
- forecast future billings
- leads and opportunities
- invoice generation
- outstanding invoices
And typically it is chaos: Managing multiple instances of the same file. Collating and cross-referencing data between sheets. Accidentally deleting or duplicating data. Having to recapture the same information multiple times,
Not only is it frustrating, but it can cost money. Both in everyone's time (and it tends to be the senior staff that work with this type of information) and in mistakes.
The solution? A Single Source of Truth
As it turns out, I ended up rewriting both the game counting and green building documentation spreadsheets as native computer programs, with dedicated user interfaces and fixed data storage structures.
Sometimes boundaries are a good thing. Limited flexibility can be frustrating but it forces consistency. Platforms that offer a specific, limited set of functionality and built upon a single database solve many of the problems that Excel creates.
This is precisely why I built Fresh Projects. Not only does it eliminate countless spreadsheets and their associated maintenance, mistakes and costs, but this single source of truth gives you an integrated source of intelligence and insight - so you can manage financially successful projects and grow your businesses.
And that is something I love.