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REDMOND, WA – New programming language will revolutionize business application development     

OK, yeah, that’s not a real story.  I just made it up, sorry 🙂

But imagine how perceptions would change if it were true, and instead of being an Office app, Excel were to morph into a professional development tool.  Maybe we’d call it Business.NET or something like that instead of XL#.  A flexible programming environment for codifying business rules, crunching raw data, and visualizing results.  With a rich Windows client runtime library as well as a webserver runtime for processing and rendering on beefy, rack-mounted server farms.

That would be pretty cool wouldn’t it?  Excel gurus could transition from their Excel environments over to Visual Studio without missing a beat, and suddenly they’d be given new job titles like “Lead Business Logic Developer,” “Senior Analytics Programmer,” or “Rapid Modeling Engineer.”

In their new roles, they might be re-org’d into IT.  But they’d retain a very close affinity with the business units themselves – no matter who they reported to, they’d sit on the boundary between IT and the business unit, serving as both diplomat and translator between those two worlds.

And the apps those folks produced would be regarded as very different animals than they are today.  No longer would they labor to produce mere documents.  They would be producing business applications.  And given that increased gravity, everyone, including this new class of developers, would treat these applications in a more disciplined manner.  They wouldn’t just be anonymous files living in shared folders or inboxes somewhere, ready to cause trouble when an external change breaks their assumptions and disrupts the business operations.

Of course, the punchline is, most everything above is already true, except for the human perceptions.

Excel files are NOT documents!  They are applications!


                  Pop Quiz for IT:  Can you spot the critical business app?

Yeah, I know.  Excel is part of the MS Office suite, just like Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote.  So clearly, Excel files are just document content, just like those other applications, right?

Nope.  Excel is a development tool.  And no, I don’t mean “if you use VBA.”  The sheets are data structures.  Cell addresses are variable names.  Formulas are the core programming language.  Things like relative reference and formula filldown are the iterative constructs.  Charts and Pivots are data-bound controls.  Excel.exe is both the programming environment as well as the runtime.  (And now Excel Services serves those roles on the web).

(In fact, when I worked on Excel, one of the exercises we used to run through was to compare Excel to other programming platforms, and use those other platforms’ features as inspiration for new spreadsheet features.)

Excel has certainly benefited from being an Office application, so don’t get me wrong.  It would not be remotely as widely-adopted as it is today had it been marketed as a dev tool rather than as an Office app.  But I do want to point out that there as a side effect of being an Office app, the world’s most popular programming tool is perceived incorrectly.  It does not produce documents, it produces applications…  and then those applications get treated with the same informality that documents do.  Like an alien hiding amongst the stuffed animals in Drew Barrymore’s closet.

“OK Rob, I get it.  What’s your point though?”

I’m still thinking my way through this, but I’m pretty sure it is leading me somewhere worth going.

So far, I’m basically thinking that the most successful PowerPivot deployments will involve a new cultural view of the Excel professional.  A view that is at least very similar to the “what if” exercise I played out at the top of this post.

This line of thinking is also in some ways a “sequel” post to the “I” in “BI”, Part Three post.

What does everyone else think?  Are perceptions malleable enough for us to get there?

And credit where credit is due:  Dick Moffat was the inspiration for this post.  If you want to hear someone rail (quite convincingly) about the improper respect given to Excel applications and programmers, look him up on Skype or drop him a line on his blog.

Or even better, drop in at Tony Packo’s next time we get together, like we did this week with Mr. Excel.  Good times, good food, and even better conversation 🙂