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Spreadsheets are everywhere. They are simple to create and are an immensely powerful tool. Unsurprisingly then this means that a lot of areas of business rely on spreadsheets to function correctly. But spreadsheets are dangerous too. They suffer from, well-known, fundamental flaws.

The problem is that spreadsheets are a special type of code, and I’m not talking about the Excel ‘macros’ I’m talking about the formulas. As such they probably need to be treated the same way as other types of code, but their very nature makes this difficult. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s first look at some of what is good and bad about spreadsheets.

Pros

Spreadsheets are remarkable for their:

  • Utility – we can bend them into almost any shape we want because they give one way to represent almost any business process;
  • Portability – we can pick up our little gobbets of data and logic and relocate them to almost anywhere inside or outside the company, in file-systems, mail servers and web-sites;
  • Simplicity – you don’t have to explain a spreadsheet to anyone. They might have to be a proto-genius to figure out how it works but the working knowledge they would need to get started is pre-loaded in their heads and ready-to-run.

Cons

So they sound pretty useful, and I like to think that I’m a pragmatic guy, so why do I hate them so much? Many have noted about the shortcomings of spreadsheets. The page on spreadsheets at Wikipedia spells it out clearly enough so I’ll paraphrase:

  1. Productivity – Working with spreadsheets requires a lot of “sheet-shuffling” to reach the required goal. The bigger the sheet, the more time is spent copying, cutting and pasting cells around.
  2. Reliability – Although what consitutes an error in a spreadsheet is subjective, the paper A Critical Review of the Literature on Spreadsheet Errors” (pdf) reveals a series of studies (some more recent than others) that have shown that approximately 5% of cells contain errors.
  3. Collaboration – Sharing a spreadsheet is difficult. Having two independent people working on the same sheet and merging their results is as far as I know impossible.

The first two items don’t bother me overly. Yes, it’s a problem but then the alternatives aren’t that great either. Consider what you would do if you didn’t have a spreadsheet to fulfill the task. You’d either do it with a bit of paper and a calculator (i.e. simulate a spreadsheet) or get a programmer to do the task for you. Either way the amount of productivity loss/gain and the amount of errors aren’t going to be that significantly different from using a spreadsheet. Don’t get me wrong, I love my fellow programmer, but we make a LOT of mistakes too. The difference perhaps is that bespoke systems usually end up getting audited (and hence fixed) and spreadsheets often don’t. Although this point is probably moot.

Good + Bad = Too Bad

My real beef is with what happens when you have the ‘pro’ of high portability with the ‘con’ of low collaborative power. You have no way of knowing which version of the spreadsheet you have is the “true” one, and which version is duff. Every copy, whether it be inadvertently through forwarding a sheet by email to someone else or explicitly by taking a ‘backup’ is a 12 foot tall baby-eating, business-crushing monster waiting to rip you and everyone you love apart.

Hug the Monster, Then Run

The thing is we kind of have to embrace the baby-business-beating monster because it’s about all we’ve got. There are some tasks, as a programmer, that I’m really happy that you as the non-programmer don’t bother me with and solve yourself in sheets. Want to set-up an intra-company phone-book as a spreadsheet so you don’t have to bother will all that “Access” voodoo? Be my guest, but I’m watching you. Want to set-up a spreadsheet to run your fantasy football so you don’t have to add two numbers together? Go right ahead, I’ll even drive you to the game so you don’t miss the turn. Want to set up a spreadsheet to calculate payments and and do a mail-merge with the results … STOP. RIGHT. NOW.

The truth is though that you might not know that you’re creating the mother-of-all spreadsheets when you start. I might not know it either but there will probably come a time when a line is crossed and then I will want to know what you’ve been doing and who you’ve been doing it with. I’m just like that.

Unless you are small company (and hence don’t have a lot of choice) you have to be very afraid of trusting anything that might lose you money to a spreadsheet. You need to be very aware of the risks and the potential-costs you are letting yourself in for. Here in Europe there is even a special interest group dedicated to highlighting the risks of spreadsheets. Those guys must throw wild parties …

The Missing Links

In my opinion there is something missing, something that can fill the gap between spreadsheet and system.

I think we need something that can:

  1. Track spreadsheet changes – Not knowing which spreadsheet is “true” and which lies (by being able to identify revisions of the sheet that have happened after yours was ‘branched’), and not being able to merge sheets is a problem. Perhaps someone solved it already, if they had that would be great.
  2. Track spreadsheets themselves – Having some more information about what sort of corporate-data was being accessed, who was using it and how frequently they ran it might alert us to potential spreadsheet monsters being born.
  3. Narrow the gap – Making spreadsheets more like traditional software systems, without significantly castrating the usefulness of the spreadsheet, would be great too. This is a little like asking for the moon on a stick though.

Perhaps I’ll make something like this one day. I have to admit it’s not a terribly exciting project but it has some potential I think. Perhaps I could spice it up by throwing a party and invite the guys from the “European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group”. Now we’re talking. How will I budget for the 7-up, party hats and streamers? In a spreadsheet of course.

One recurring theme I have noticed with users of systems I’ve worked on, is that they aren’t nearly as stupid as I think. They often try to make sense of the system thrust in-front of them. This is mostly out of necessity since it stands between them and them doing their job, and so they need to make sense of it. Having written some truly awful systems myself I wish all of them the very best of luck.

Another, seemingly unrelated observation, is that business people are truly astounded, and often suspicious, of how long it takes to provide a solution to a particular problem. Writing software is simply hard so that partly explains it. Sometimes however some of the solutions that are asked for can come quickly. This might happen if the system was expressly designed to handle new cases of the particular solution being requested or if producing the solution requires little more than a configuration or script change. Or it might just be dumb luck that the release cycle has worked in their favour.

Disconnect

This disconnect between implementation times, with no apparent reason to the business user can cause problems. Sometimes it feeds the suspicion that they are being ‘had’ in some elaborate con:

“If change ‘x’ takes a week then surely change ‘y’ should take half as long. How could it not? It only takes half as many words to say out loud. Those guys in IT need firing.”

When that business person is a manager it can lead to awkward situations for developers:

“Change ‘x’ took a week, change ‘y’ will take half as long. How can it not? It’s the only thing that stands between us and product success. If it doesn’t I’ll fire those IT guys”.

The simple truth is that unless a business person has also the developer’s view of the system they will not be able to make sound judgements about it. Hell, I have a developers view and not even my judgements are particularly sound.

However humans are pretty adaptable creatures, and rather than telling them the answer we should explain the answer in a way that they can understand. If they want to listen then educating them has a few potential benefits. For one thing it might make you look like you care about your users, rather than being that IT jerk who steals everyone’s food from the refrigerator. However, if you get your point across without sounding (to them) like a lunatic then you might improve their mental model of how the system actually works.

Breed

There is a breed of programmer out their in the world today that has either evolved or engineered themselves into a situation where they are the only one who ‘knows’. Yes, you know who you are. Sometimes they do this as a survival instinct to make themselves indispensable, sometimes because they’re not great communicators or educators. These are the people that need to be fired because their value is way-less than they think it is. They actually harm the productivity of the company by being obstructive or uncommunicative, plus they’re a real pain-in-the-ass to work with.

Yes you will need to keep a watchful eye on your newly educated fledglings. Especially the managers, but there’s nothing knew about that.

I have never been particularly clear about when to choose single or double floating point arithmetic. I think I have been operating on a sort of ‘trial-and-error’ approach for some time. It seems ludicrous that I should not, after all these years, know exactly when to chose single or double precision arithmetic. The truth is that I don’t, and it’s now time to fix that.

First, a little background. I was, for reasons that are too sad to explain, interested in how to calculate (accurately) the time of the Vernal Equinox. That is the exact time of the year (to the minute – if possible) that the sun is 90o above the earth at the equator. Anyway, I found some code which is an implementation of an astronomical algorithim designed expressly for the purpose of calculating the vernal equinox and is accurate to about 20 minutes. Which is good enough for now.

Now the next piece of background is that I was also doing this in Lisp and up until now I have let the reader interpret all the literals I enter. When I tried to do the calculation in the REPL I could get no closer than being in the same part of the day as I was expecting and with the result somewhat rounded to the nearest half day. After some head scratching it finally occurred to me that the the computation required more significant digits than I really had. It seems that the formula I was entering was being interpreted as single precision floating point numbers because if I had wanted double’s I would have suffixed my literal numbers with a ‘d’. It would seem that d could also stand for D’uh. Seems fair enough. Time to do some research then …

You see, according to the IEEE standard 754-1985 a single precision floating point number has 23 significant bits and a double has 53 significant bits. For me to answer the question of how many significant figures I can get in decimal would require me to know that the smallest decimal fraction that I can represent in binary is. This number would be 1/223 which is about .00000011920928955078125.

Now, floating point numbers are represented from a fractional part and an exponent part to give the decimal representation of the number. Therefore you can never get more accuracy than the smallest binary fraction multiplied by the exponent you have. This means that the significant figures should be something like:

log10(1/(2^23)) = -6.9

Therefore when a number has 7 significant figures you are already losing a little accuracy, the more significant figures you add the worse it will get. It was then clear that my astronomical antics were less than stellar since the first literal in the computation has 11 significant figures.

Indeed whilst I was thinking about this problem it occurred to me that if I wanted to continue using single precision I could split the fractional part from the integer part and continue this way. However, this is still inferior to a double because it would give me 7 significant figures for both parts and therefore a total of 14 significant figures. This is inferior because using my shiny new brain I can show that a double will give about 16 signficant figures. Of course I could have also concluded that double’s are better than two floats by noting that 23 bits+ 23 bits < 53 bits but that would never have been as much fun.

Type Word Size Mantissa Dec Sig. Figs.
Single 32 23 7
Double 64 53 16
Extended 96 63 19
Quad-Extended 128 113 34

You could argue that I could have saved myself 20 minutes of time by looking the answer up but then again I would never remember the answer unless I proved it to myself first. So, now my spring occurs at the same time as everyone else’s and I know why. Oh it happened already? Sheeeeiiiitttt.

I like war stories. They remind me that I’m not alone on this journey.

This is a war story. It involves a lot of entrails, questionable surgery and plenty of walking wounded. I carry the scars so perhaps you don’t have to …

… when I joined the team the system consisted of:

  1. A few thousand lines of C++ code which ran as 10 process on two Solaris hosts;
  2. Some Java code that ran on an NT4 J2EE server;
  3. A bunch of windows client PCs all running the same (but different to the server) Java VM
  4. A collection of ‘glue’ scripts written in shell script and Tcl.

It ran in two locales, and the hardware was broadly equivalent in both, from what I recall. Now compare this to what we had by the time I left:

  1. A larger body C++ code with 15 or so processes
    on one Solaris host as well as a set of additional x86 UNIX hosts (of mixed hardware pedigree) that were sprinkled with various flavours of Solaris and Linux (RedHat) that would run between 2-4 processes depending on the number of cores;
  2. 2 J2EE servers of the same vendor;
  3. A further 2 J2EE servers of a different vendor (don’t ask!);
  4. A collection of scripts written in shell script & Python (thankfully we stamped out the Tcl);
  5. 3 primary locations each running a 2 different versions of our software and a single satellite location (hanging from a primary location).

Each server release involved somewhere around 10 hosts running different hardware, OS & JVM. It’s similar and different to the problem that software vendors must have when they need to make their product run on multiple platforms. However the difference for us was that our software was a distributed system and each component needed to seamlessly interact with its peers. Something that not many software vendors make a habit of, other than Microsoft I suppose.

Against this background was a team of 10 developers in 3 timezones developing software for a constantly changing and fairly lucrative business. Quickly made enhancements could secure profits, instability and failures might secure losses so it was important to try and keep the system running as smoothly as possible. However, the large code base (>100,000 lines) and confusing deployment array made every release a roller coaster ride. In my last two years of the job the release cycle, whilst somewhat improved from when I started, had increased from 1-2 months to almost 6. This had an unforseen consequence that developers would, out of necessity, place new features onto release branches to be able to get features out faster. That’s when the madness started.

There were too many release versions, operating system versions and client library versions to contend with. Sometimes even trivial changes become enormous chess games where the order of the changes that we made would determine whether the system would actually run or not. Eventually it was bound to grind to a halt because with that many deployment configurations each release had too many testing dependencies. There were two problems here, firstly since this was now a very widely distributed system it would be difficult for us to have an accurate test deployment that worked. Further, making distributed systems work is hard anyway and the more configurations you have to manage the more complex it’s going to be. We were trying to help ourselves by retrospectively adding unit-tests but the coverage was still fairly low and so we could never have very much confidence that a built system was actually going to work. What we really desperately needed were integration tests but we never quite managed it.

That’s where Joel’s post from last week comes in. As described by Joel we essentially had a SEQUENCE-MANY situation. Where to be sure of stability we had to test many releases against many deployment configurations. It would be fair to say that we failed to do this adequately. I sometimes wonder if we could have done it a little better.

  1. Could We Have Had Tighter Control Over The Hardware? Unlike the problem of enforcing standards in Web browsers we of course had full control over the deployment environment so we could have mandated a common platform for it. As enticing as this sounds, talking to system admins now and then would tend to suggest that this is simply not possible if the hardware is to be purchased incrementally. This is because after you buy the first 2 Dell servers with a standard specification, a month later that specification will have changed. As more time passes the drift between the hardware is larger.

    If, however, you sourced a job lot of the hardware in the same place at the same time, you could buy extra (for spares and future requirements) and attempt to keep this variable constant. It would have been expensive to do but it is at least possible in this scenario. I think that this probably would have reduced the number of different cross-compilations that were required and reduced the number of different JVMs that we had to manage. The biggest problem though is that we would have, to a certain extent, needed to know the future to be able to predict what sorts and what amounts of hardware we would need when we set out. That kind of makes it a non-starter, coupled with the fact that I’ve never actually heard of anyone doing this for real.

  2. Could We Have Had Tighter Control Over The Software This is the thing that concerns me the most and is definitely a place we didn’t do as well as we should have. We let people go ahead and implement locale specifc solutions that were unworkable globally but those created internal system dependencies that would later need to be ‘undone’. Anyone who has ever worked on a system after its release will know it’s much easier to get it right first time. This is because if you create an intermediate solution that ends up being used then you have to manage the old intermediate-version ‘out’.

    Indeed, there was a story here too. The original system architect moved on a year or so after I joined. He used to worry about 80% of the code that got committed, when he left no-one really had his insight into the architecture and the rust quickly set in. Related to the loss of architect, as already mentioned, was the lack of integration tests. Both would have helped us to identify which code was bogus and have it fixed before it reached a release stage.

The one thing we did succesfully manage to do was to stop developers changing release branches. But the effect of that was to make us look like chumps when the business had to be denied features until new releases could be rolled out. Ho hum.

The idealist in me thinks we could have done a few things to make it work better but the pragmatist thinks that we did what we had to do. Whilst the idealist in my head makes a lot of noise and gets listened to an awful lot the pragmatist is the one who gets the most results. When you are faced with a daily tightrope walk, like we were, you have to try and be both idealist and pragmatist. Choosing the idealist’s course when you think you can get away with it and the pramatist when you can’t.

But when all else fails just hope for the best. The scars will heal. Eventually.

Carrying on the theme of whimsy from last week I had an interesting week this week where I did almost no development at all. You see this week I’ve been only answering questions. Why? Well I’m trying to be Dave and I think I might have gone too far.

Dave – a go go

Let me explain. Dave is a person, yes. But Dave is more than a person. Dave is a way of life. A way of life that could make you popular and respected where you work but at tremendous personal cost.

I first met the real Dave about 4 years ago. A couple of years younger than me he was quite the most dynamic and down-to-earth person I had ever met up until that point. He was also well respected (by technologists and business people), well liked and quite successful.

If you could try and categorize what being Dave is about into a well-known personality type then I think he’d be an incrementalist, but beyond that Dave somehow knows everything, is very easy to talk to, and eager to help. This combination of traits means Dave ends up answering a lot of questions.

The most interesting thing about this combination of traits is that once you decide on being Dave you will end up being involved in a lot of things. The more things you’re involved in the wider the knowledge of your Dave-ness will spread. It’s a vicious circle.

American-slang has a great word for Dave he’s the go-to-guy. It sums it up very neatly, but it’s a bit Ronseal. I prefer Dave. It’s more about a person, which is exactly what being Dave is all about.

Robert – do do do

But the garden of Dave is not all roses. Eventually you know too much. Too many people know-that-Dave-knows and that Dave will help them if Dave doesn’t know. In short, every one will want a piece of your Dave-ass.

The late Robert Townsend in his excellent book says:

The world is divided into two classes of people: the few people who make good on their promises (even if they don’t promise as much), and the many who don’t. Get in column A and stay there. You’ll be very valuable wherever you are

Being Dave is counter-productive to this noble aim. As word spreads that there’s a new Dave in town your personal productivity will nose-dive and you can’t promise shit. You’ve stopped doing your own work and you’ve become the grease that keeps the company moving, a facilitator rather than a producer.

Lucy – no no no

This is where you have to sprinkle a dash of Lucy. Lucy Kellaway is a columnist for the FT and is a commentator on managerial and workplace cults. Her advice is probably the sagest of all. Sometimes you just have to say no. A lot of time and effort can be saved by saying ‘No’. The trick is to say ‘No’ without actually ever saying it.

Indeed in our insane ‘Yes’ culture the only way you can be Dave and Robert, and hold your sanity, is to be Lucy too. Just as long as your remember who you are you’ll be just fine.

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