Engineering in Excel?

April 5, 2016

For years we have been using Microsoft Excel to write technical reports. Microsoft Excel is a compromise choice – it does nothing very well, but it allows you to do many useful things, the negative aspects can be managed and it is nearly universally used across the world, at least on desktop and laptop PC’s.

Recently we have been writing reports for two clients who are using Microsoft Word and this has thrown into sharp relief the reasons why we use Excel and not Word.

I started using Excel for reporting while working at the Morson Projects Stress office in the UK in the early/mid 1990’s. Over the following years of experience working at various locations on contracting jobs and working with some great engineers I picked up better habits for using Excel – how to create and govern report templates, creating analysis methods in final report formats, ways to make Excel bend without breaking it.

Then you have to switch back to using Word …….. I have spent a lot of the last few weeks pulling out my graying hair to get Word to just behave itself. Random changes of text formatting,  random page template changes, random crashes, random section numbering changes, random font changes, random randomness…..

In engineering terms Excel is determinate, Word is indeterminate. Word seems to inhabit some quantum state of probability and, indeed, merely observing a Word document does seem to affect the outcome. Honestly – anything seems to affect the outcome – the weather, the USD-CAD exchange rate, the color of my pants, whether I sit with my legs crossed or I sit man-spreading at my desk……

I don’t blame Word – it is not optimized for technical report writing. Word, however, is especially poor at adapting to doing anything other than prose and pictures.

I also believe that engineers like Excel because it does a of of things moderately well. Opening up Excel in the morning to start work feels like like the first time I saw a leatherman multi-tool for the first time or a particularly well appointed swiss army knife – a faint thrill created by all of the possibilities and potential that the tool represents.

Excel is ‘good enough’ in almost every aspect, and ‘good-enough’ is perfection for an engineer.

To quote the full verse; the second half, which is the critical part, is almost always forgotten:

Jack of all trades and master of none

Oft times better than a master of one

To me Excel is a natural fit for engineers, as a simple analysis tool, a makeshift database and, when used properly, the best tool for writing reports.  To force engineers to use Word (designed for use by secretaries and….err….poets?), is like forcing a tree surgeon to use an egg whisk when a chainsaw is what they really need to do the job.


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2 Comments on "Engineering in Excel?"

  • Richard, great post, although a web page footer artefact is obscuring one paragraph that I had to copy and paste elsewhere to read.

    No one tool is perfect and we have to make the best of the tools at hand, unless a case can be made for an alternate tool. As you say in most cases Excel is “good enough”.

    The VBA object model for automating Word makes my brain explode while the Excel object model just makes sense (most of the time).

    • Not sure what is going on with the footer – I will pass on your comment to my web guy…..

      I used to use a lot of VBA in excel – in the end we invest any VBA code into common .xlam add-in files we use in the office as VBA code in workbooks don’t copy over when you copy the workbook contents over into another spreadsheet.

      So we avoid the ‘casual’ use of VBA and I also get a kick out of getting the excel vanilla functions to do things that they really should not be doing…….which is a sign that I need to get out more.

      Thanks for the comment.