Amateur Excel wizards-the simplicity, scale and incredible consequences of their errors

Nobody imagines they can copy a bit of code off the internet and write the next messenger app, or heart monitor, but frequently people, whose position and professional standing suggests they ought to know more, make a hasty edit to an excel sheet in between meetings with extraordinary consequences.

* An accountant omitted a single minus sign resulting in their dividend estimate spreadsheet being out by a $2.6 billion.

* A simple cut and paste error resulted in TransAlta over paying $24 million for US power transmission hedge funds. “Cut and paste” can you believe it?

* In a written statement, Jayne Shontell, Fannie Mae’s vice president for investor relations put a $1.3 billion reporting error down to an “honest mistake in a spreadsheet”, but did not go into detail about the error.

* “ JP Morgan, was running huge bets (tens of billions of dollars, what we might think of a golly gee gosh that’s a lot of money) in London. The way they were checking what they were doing was playing around in Excel and not even in the “Masters of the Universe” style that we might hope, all integrated, automated and self-checking, but by cutting and pasting from one spreadsheet to another. And yes, they got one of the equations wrong as a result of which the bank lost several billion dollars”. Again, “Cut and paste” the mind boggles!

* Reinhart, Rogoff… in 2010 published an influential report, “Growth in a Time of Debt”, used by economists globally, but specially in US and Europe to argue against fiscal stimulus. Now anyone with a grasp of economics had to be wondering about this straight away, however, it was not until a student, Herndon spotted not just flaws but what looked like careless weighting of data ranges and blew the whistle that the scale and arrogance of the mistakes came to light. Who knows what impact these errors had on millions of human lives.

* A report published in January stated that poor spreadsheet protocols were primarily to blame for JP Morgan’s estimated $5.8bn (£3.8bn) of trading losses racked up last year from credit default swaps, including by a trader nicknamed “The London Whale”.

Spurned by a continuing list of catastrophes, regulators around the world, including the Basel banking committee and Britain’s Financial Services Authority, have focused their attention on spreadsheets as a key component of best-practice corporate governance.

You may not be running J P Morgan, but the figures you are dealing with have equally big consequences for you, your staff, your customers, your shareholders. The stark reminder here is that code is not for children, cut and paste is something we don’t even discuss in polite company, methodical approaches with sufficient testing and oversight is the bare minimum and I’m not even discussing regulation or compliance. Serious decisions should be made using reliable information that has been quality checked and is understood for what it is.
The average executive playing with a few formulas and macros in Excel could soon be risking a Jail sentence and certainly eventual ruin is inevitable.
Software engineering is now a mature profession and when allowed, let alone encouraged to do it right, the profession will follow proven procedures and well-trodden paths to ensure a very low risk of highly expensive errors. It is easy to understand the temptation for a subject matter expert to ignore the need for a software expert and just paste in some data, but increasingly this kind of foolishness is being identified and outlawed and it can only be a matter of time until “Honest mistakes” come under more serious scrutiny.
A few simple steps now and an achievable plan could pay big dividends in a short time frame and besides,  a seasoned pro can achieve more safely in a few days or even hours sometimes and not only cut out the risk and delays, but save you money into the bargain.

If you are concerned about any of your  processes, please do get in touch for a confidential chat.


Let’s talk turkey or rather cloud

First me let me make it clear that I am a fan of what cloud and internet can do for businesses of all sizes and have been “bigging this up” for at least two decades. I would risk shouts of Hypocrite were I not to say so. Having said that I must warn against jumping blindly onto a bandwagon without even asking about the destination.

You may say I am being reactive and hasty, but I promise you that my concerns are raised by the sight of intelligent and knowledgeable men and women blindly buying into arrangements that are often far too risky at the current time in their current form.

I won’t name names or even suppliers, but be assured I have been dealing with global clients and global suppliers and this is what, more than anything else has rung my alarm bells.

  1. What if you fall out with this cloud supplier? (We all have seen or been involved in deals worth tens of millions or billions that have gone horribly wrong, let’s not live in denial) .
    What does the small print say about your rights in this situation? What if your supplier goes bankrupt, or simply withdraws from providing cloud services? Have you asked how you can get your data out in any case? How long would it take you to get back to business as usual in the event of any of these situations? How central to your core business is this cloud service? What else depends on it? Need I go on?
  1. The cloud only works when you have connectivity. What guarantees do you have of connectivity for all the hours when you will be paying your staff and hoping for productivity? And waiting for customers to call. Are you in denial again about the “connected world”. Last month I touched down in 4 countries and only once did my phone behave itself. Google maps, forget that! Calling a cab, not unless there’s a courtesy phone. Internet, nothing doing.  Boarding-card on your phone, I’d never have got started if they hadn’t used the good old paper passport to look me up on the system. Two weeks ago in Western Europe I was barely able to load a web page let alone be productive at work. I won’t go on, but lets, just say, you might one day be the only one who doesn’t have access to your data.
  2. Who sees your data? Everyone who wants it is the simple answer. First of all, the US government accesses any data anywhere whether on US servers or not with very few exceptions and I suggest you google how many major data breaches occurred with US government data in the past year to work out who else can see that data. Check out the stories of private and sensitive documents from drop box and google drive available to anyone on the web. There are two takeaways. 1. If someone is doing it regularly, anyone can do it, theft is rampant. If your data needs to be private and it is valuable to someone, keep it off the cloud. 2. If they can take data out they can probably put data in, that could be even more problematic.
  3. Who said the cloud was good value? Start-ups needing to get off the ground without the big capital investment love it, anyone needing to rapidly burst to meet demand peaks can find a great deal, however, many who have made this jump are feeling nervous about the level of costs, and the direction it will take. Certainly unless you scrutinise the details of every potential charge and penalty, you could live to regret it. I have personal experience of this. Yes there are tempting deals, but they are not all what they seem ad there is a big picture regardless of what the salesman says.
  4. Loss of skills, processes and people is never trivial. Unless you are very confident indeed about your commitment to cloud and more important the cloud’s commitment to you, then you really have to consider the risk of finding yourself without an IT department or even the memory of how to set one up as you find yourself pushed further and further into a corner by a maturing oligopoly of big players gaming the marketplace.
  5. Poor APIs and expensive difficult integration.
    Let’s be realistic, many businesses bought into the ERP idea thinking it would solve all their integration problems and they wouldn’t need an IT department. What really happened was the exact opposite. The demand remained or grew and the time and cost and especially expertise levels to meet these demands now quadrupled. Integrating ERP with anything is an area of pain I often wish I had never got involved with, but at least we had low level access all the way down to database level when necessary. A cloud ERP I can assure you, just in case you have not experienced it is an altogether less flexible beast than the original and fills none of the gaps but if anything exposes more. ERP was just and example, one way or another your business requires a lot of specialist systems in order to function and these needs will continue to change readily, but more importantly these systems will need to share data and communicate at real time. This capability is a long way off for the most advanced cloud platforms. They are effectively islands, closed shops. Some APIs are better than others but none I have seen are adequate and API’s alone are not enough to provide the level of integration needed.
    A few vendors are attempting to bundle middleware as part of the offering, but they are rightly nervous about making big promises. In fact this aspect of your emerging cloud infrastructure is an even bigger and more expensive challenge in many cases than in the old regime.
  1. Lack of flexibility plus arbitrary updates and changes.
    Just like your new Widows 10 install, you log in to do something only to find your favourite interface has vanished without warning and you can’t do it anymore. This is the joy of cloud computing. Would-be Oligopolies flexing their muscles and gaining in confidence in the knowledge that there is nothing you can do about it. Perhaps I jump the gun, but experience tells us that if they get away with this for a little while, and who will stop them? The next phase is likely to be complete  disregard for the customer. Speaking of which, have you ever wondered which customer they talk to before they design the next feature for “YOUR” business.  Wasn’t productivity software supposed to be about gaining advantage and differentiation …?
  1. IT without a medium and long term strategic view is a train-wreck about to happen, I doubt anyone with argue with this. Business stakeholders and IT people do sometimes disagree and there are times when business demands are not realistic or safe and other times without doubt when IT stakeholders are in the “Not invented here” camp, but as long as the dialogue continues, things will work out. The problem often introduced by the cloud model is that pre-sales go right past IT to talk to technical amateurs in the business arena  only engaging when they have already agreed a large investment and with no regard for the bigger picture. This can never work out and should never be supported by business at any level, nor should it be encouraged or even tolerated by Cloud vendors with a longer term strategy. Enterprise architecture is more important than ever when cloud solutions are involved.


Tomorrow, I could easily write you an article explaining why the cloud is a good idea as indeed it is, so please don’t assume I am saying that it is all bad, or suppliers are all bad, I am simply trying to impress on you the need to take reasonable precautions and think it through before jumping.