My first job in the corporate world started when PCs made their debut in the realm of business. The new, suitcase-sized computers were all the rage and management was itching to get young, entry-level financial analysts like me on the fast track into the computer age. These PCs were powerful and exciting tools. Having already had considerable experience on mainframes, I had a knack for PC computing.
On my first assignment the department managers stressed how important it was that I get to know my PC inside and out. (Since there was no such thing as an IT department at that time, I had to perform all repairs and memory upgrades myself. So I did know it inside and out literally!) I picked up on using spreadsheets fairly quickly, eagerly learning everything I could. Management was pleased with my work overall. But, these experienced businessmen enthusiastically encouraged me to emulate a colleague named Bernie, who was a favorite role model in the firm. All the managers thought so highly of this young analyst and showed me printouts of nice, neat financial statements that he had prepared.
Bernie was maybe a year or two older than me. He was confident, brash and a bit arrogant – the continuous praise from his superiors had definitely gone to his head. He looked down on me condescendingly as the new kid on the block, so it was hard to befriend him. Nevertheless, I remained cognizant that I needed to find out what exactly Bernie did and how he did it.
Well, the break finally came when Bernie had to take on a new assignment and I assumed some of his responsibilities. My supervisor was almost giddy with anticipation that I would gain insight into the workings of a top class professional. I would be following in the very footsteps of the firm’s premiere superstar. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for: to fine tune my skills and advance my career.
Then I opened the first spreadsheet. There was not one single formula in the entire workbook. Every individual cell was hard-coded. And all of his workbooks followed the same pattern. Now I understood why he used his calculator so much; he calculated every single item offline and then entered the result into the spreadsheet. Not surprisingly, all of the schedules were riddled with errors.
Needless to say, I did not emulate this idol who management had placed so high on a pedestal. I may have made my print copy a little prettier, but I continued my work in the proper mode.
Strangely enough, even in this day and age I still see poorly constructed spreadsheets. Although none have been quite as remarkable, or should I say unremarkable, as those from Bernie. But with workbooks getting increasingly powerful and complicated, professionals need extensive training. And they should focus on process, as well as function. Otherwise they are just pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.
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