The Future of Productivity Tools: Elastic Features

But as one’s reach is amplified, so too is one’s vision. Now that the users can grasp much more of the computer material, they can also better see what they need.” This is a quote from a paper written by Alan Kay which we will come back to later in this post. I have begun reflecting on the productivity tools and workflows we come across in the workplace. Furthermore, I am starting to see the impact cloud computing, the browser, and SaaS platforms have on these workflows as organizations strive to lower IT costs. Join me on this journey of being more productive with tools we have at our disposal.

A New Kind Of Spreadsheet

I was a beta user for which came out of stealth in late 2017. Coda is basically a shareable doc that combines of Google Sheets, Excel, PowerPoint, and Trello into one. I will be doing a review and tutorials about the tool itself in the future, but for now I want to focus on how the experience of Coda has led me to re-consider the productivity tools I use on a daily basis. Why is this important? Food activists say you “vote with your dollar” when you consume food from certain restaurants or food providers. For the computer or office administrator, the tools we choose to use impact the decisions your IT manager or CTO must make which may impact the bottom line.

You are most likely a heavy user of Excel because your company or office uses it to make critical business decisions. You might also use Excel because it came with Microsoft Office. From my experience using Excel and seeing how other businesses use Excel, one theme has become clear: most people do not need to use Excel.

1985 version of Excel for the Mac

To clarify, most people do not use 80-90% of Microsoft Excel’s features. Most office workers and administrators are using Excel to maintain a list of data, filter and format said list, and maybe do some graphing here and there. If you extract this use case to thousands of users in a company where the CTO has purchased Microsoft licenses to satisfy workers’ needs, this leads to wasted IT spend. For the 10-15% of Excel users who are performing a highly specialized function (e.g. financial analyst, investment banker), the cost justifies the use case. However, even in this case, I would argue that the “formula gurus” out there are actually building small applications where the code and logic just happens to live in the cells of the spreadsheet.

Business Applications Will Be Browser Applications

If you are following along with the argument so far, you believe that highly specialized software (which, I believe, includes Excel) should be used primarily by a worker in a highly specialized function. This leaves a large majority of us who don’t need Excel which led to the rise of a lightweight spreadsheet application like Google Sheets. When Google Sheets first came out, it was clunky, slow, and lacked (understandbly so) the features available in Excel. However, the ability to communicate and collaborate on a spreadsheet was completely novel which led to Google Sheets’ rise in the workplace.

Can more “highly specialized” software move to an online environment? There is a great episode on the a16z podcast called “The $200 PC in the Enterprise” that addresses this shift. Consider the plumber or Verizon repair person who comes to your house to fix something. He or she normally carries a tablet or phone to schedule the job, confirm the work needed to be done, and a host of other activities. The applications that this worker uses are extremely lightweight and could live in a browser or a native app on the phone or tablet. Having said that, the features of the web or browser application are tuned down so that the worker can get their job done efficiently.

If we switch over to the medical office worker who is still tied to a PC or machine in their office to review an X-ray or submit medical records, these applications are custom-built software that come with costly licenses similar to Excel or Oracle applications. There may be a need for the radiologist to use the specialized X-ray software, but for the other administrative workers in the office, the full feature set is not necessary. We are talking about solving the 80/20 rule here for our employees, which means delivering the 20% of features that can solve 80% of what workers need to do day-to-day, and this is where the browser application can solve a real problem in terms of speed, cost, and security.

An Elastic Framework For Excel and Spreadsheet Software

What does it mean to be elastic in terms of software or web applications? To borrow a definition from the world of cloud computing:

Elasticity is the ability to grow or shrink infrastructure resources dynamically as needed to adapt to workload changes in an autonomic manner, maximizing the use of resources.

From a cloud computing perspective, virtual machines can be easily scaled up and down based on the needs of your web application. What if the same concept could be applied to the features in your software or web application? If the goal is to maximize resources and minimize cost especially for highly specialized applications, conceptually this is where today’s productivity tools could evolve to. Every time your Excel spreadsheet needs to run a specific function, it would call the Microsoft API to create a PivotTable or run a Goal Seek. In the world of video transcoding, visual effects studios are already doing this by outsourcing their rendering workflows to the public cloud.

The above graph shows the benefits of having an elastic infrastructure to grow and shrink your virtual machines given your workload. In today’s workplace, Excel is over-provisioned to workers so that would be the blue line in the graph. The orange line would be the ideal feature set for a spreadsheet application that mimics actual demand from your workers. At the end of the day, Excel is a blank canvas and you are calling various functions in the Microsoft library to carry out your calculations. These functions give Excel it’s robust flexibility as an analytical tool. Extending this elastic framework even further, you could push these functions into the cloud and call them only when you absolutely need them. Perhaps the better analogy is serverless computing, where no servers or OSs are needed and all the cloud is doing for you is running the Excel function and returning the results back to your machine in your office.

We want to edit our tools as we have previously edited our documents. – Alan Kay, Opening The Hood Of A Word Processor

Going back to Alan Kay’s paper from 1984, he hints at a future where we are not constricted by the presets of our tools and applications. While Excel gives us the flexibility of analyzing data, it may be constricting the modern-day worker from work patterns that involve analysis, collaboration, and communication. Before we go into the the current and future state, it’s worth looking at a brief history of the mainframe.

The Only Tool Around For Mainframes

IBM still shipping out mainframes

As referenced in the a16z podcast, one of the main reasons Excel has persisted through the decades is because it was the only tool available to process and analyze data from mainframe computers. Back then, the demands of the business user were simple: give me a tool to process the data being dumped from my company’s central database without needing to code or run advanced MySQL queries. Microsoft responded swiftly by providing the libraries and graphing features to get your core data analysis work done, and business users loved it.

Fast forward two decades. Business users still prefer doing ad hoc analysis in Excel, but new data visualization and analytics applications can now handle the workflow between your database and the nice fancy graph that goes in your PowerPoint presentation. To keep up with the demands of business users, vendors like Tableau and Looker provide that additional layer of analysis that Excel from a graphing perspective cannot provide. However, Excel still remains the go-to tool for processing data dumps and CSVs from your engineering team.

Where Productivity Tools Are Headed

From a hardware perspective, it is hard to imagine a world where phones and tablets are not the preferred “machine” for the worker who is traveling to and from client sites. In the office, PCs and desktops computers will eventually fade as netbooks, Chromebooks, and even simple USB devices like the Chromebit can take care of most computing requirements. Shifting more applications to the browser and web means less hardware costs,  but the bigger question is which applications will replace your software like Excel, SAP, and Oracle?

There will always be the specialized users who need Excel for modeling or Photoshop for photo editing. However, that group of users will not grow as fast as the group of modern-day workers who value communication and collaboration on tools like Slack, G Suite, and Trello. By default, these tools live in the browser, require little maintenance, and solve common work patterns very well. I believe the business requirement to communicate the Excel model outweighs the requirement to build the Excel model as teams within the enterprise become more tightly integrated.

Thanks For Sticking Around

I normally don’t write long posts like this, but having experimented with a few new tools and technologies recently has showed me the typical patterns we see in the workplace are not necessarily “productive.” New patterns are emerging, and most of you may already be using these productivity tools without even knowing it. In my next post, I’ll highlight my initial experience with Coda, the doc tool mentioned at the top of this post.