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Spreadsheet errors: open source or survival of the fittest

There is a bit of a kerfuffle going on in the economics world at the moment over spreadsheet errors and data cherry picking in an influential paper about the current economic crisis. I don’t know anything about economics and will leave commentary on the data cherry picking to others, but I can claim to know something about coding errors.

Stories of companies loosing lots of money because of small mistakes in a spreadsheet are fairly common, this problem is not rare or unimportant. Academic research on spreadsheets seems to be slowly gathering steam, with PhDs appearing every now and again. Industry appears to be more active, with a variety of companies offering tools aimed at finding faults in spreadsheets.

Based on my somewhat limited experience of helping people fix spreadsheet problems I suspect that no amount of research or tool availability from industry will solve the real problem that faces spreadsheet users, which is that they don’t appreciate their own fallibility.

Back when software development first started people were very surprised to discover the existence of software faults. As every new programmer discovers, computers are merciless and will punish the slightest coding mistake. A large part of becoming a professional developer involves learning how to structure development to deal with personal fallibility, plus developing a mental attitude capable of handling the constant reminder of personal fallibility that computers provide to anybody writing code to tell them what to do (something that deters some people from becoming developers).

It rarely enters the head’s of people who are sporadic authors of code or spreadsheets that they may be making subtle mistakes that can have a significant impact on the results produced. Getting somebody with this frame of mind to perform testing on what they have written is well nigh on impossible.

In a research context one very practical solution to the code reliability issue is to insist that code or/and spreadsheets be made freely available. Only when the spreadsheet used to create the results in the paper linked to above was made available to others were the mistakes it contained uncovered.

In a commercial context it is down to survival of the fittest, those companies who do not keep their spreadsheet errors below a recoverable level die.

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