Spreadsheets of the Night

I’ve been working with some spreadsheets at the office lately. These aren’t your simple, solitary spreadsheets which are content to sit in a corner of your hard drive and do their thing on their own. They’re not even the sort of spreadsheet that was given life years ago, and has slowly grown up; picking up a few connections here and there, adding functionality bit by bit. Innocently, like a child growing up – developing new skills, building new muscles, making new friends.

No, not these miscreants. These are the sort that would turn up on “The World’s Strictest Parents”. They’ve been booked with a couple of ASBOs, but are far from reformed. The first really mean one I came across had links to 42 other sheets. As I started working my way down that list, I found that most of those sheets had links to at least another 10. What’s more – trying to investigate the links led to a message about not being able to continue, because the linked sheet was saved without being recalculated. Shortly followed by an “Unable to read file” and a crash.

And that got me thinking that these aren’t just badly designed spreadsheets – they’re nefarious villains intent on undercover financial crime. They might have started out as a life company balance sheet, pulling in asset values and actuarial liability model results from two or three places, but it’s certainly not that innocent any more. It’s like facebook all over again – you start off with a few friends with the idea of keeping contact with them. All warm and fuzzy. But between FriendFinder, and FriendSuggest, and pokes and tags and ThisVille and ThatVille, you soon have more than 150 ‘friends’ who flood your wall with their inane experiences. Before you know it, your profile information has been nabbed and you’re winning lotteries and inheriting Nigerian fortunes. And Excel has allowed the seedier side of spreadsheets to get away with something similar. It’s allowed spreadsheets to find their own friends, letting them write on each other’s walls, share their profiles, and develop their own communal intelligence.

Now that was all very well in the the glory days of the financial services industry, when honour meant something, and the customer came first. But since the build-up to the financial crisis, spreadsheets in the banks and insurance companies have taken matters into their own hands. They’ve stopped being simple tools to value liabilities and assets, and have started skimming off a slice of the action for themselves. It’s all hidden away in linked sheets two or three layers down, deep enough to avoid even the most rigorous auditors. A little here, a little there, laundered through SUMIFs and DGETs. They turn a small profit on each pivot table, and avoid getting caught with diligent use of VLOOKUPs.

And it has to stop. I’ve spent the last week at the office installing barricades. Breaking up the chain gangs. Closing down cartels, and data-smuggling rings. It’s too early to announce a victory, but my little corner of the company is slowly becoming a safer place to use Excel.


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