Buggy spreadsheets not for the faint of heart

A long time ago, I was sitting in front of this very complex spreadsheet. This monster was designed to prove a certain company was worth more alive than dead – the subject was under bankruptcy court protection, and creditors wanted it liquidated. A hundred employees lives laid in the balance.

After building, and then pouring over iterations for weeks, I started finding errors. Numbers that shouldn’t be just showed up. I’d piss and moan to my superiors that the deal wouldn’t work. I said “the numbers don’t lie.” My mentor of the day suggested this:

“Well it worked last week. What changed? I think you need a break. Walk away from the thing – take a break. I suspect this is all artist’s user error.”

What did he mean by that? The more you play with a spreadsheet, the better the chance that you’ll break it. Go with your gut, learn to step away from the raw numbers and think about the bigger picture – the subject of your analysis. You might find you are subjecting yourself to the same – simple artist’s user error.

Big corporate hasn’t learned this lesson yet. Maybe they are just short on staff after all the “productivity gains.”

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