How Software Abuse Affects Productivity

Software Abuse
This post was previously published. It has been updated.

OK, this is a bit of a soapbox topic for me, but I’ve got to say it. You see, I’ve working in Information Technology forever, 13 years as a consultant. And the number one thing I saw as a consultant was software abuse.

Software abuse is when you take a program and make it do things it was never intended to do. This often results in slow computers, incomplete data, and bad analysis. It also means poor productivity.

Poor Productivity?

Yes, poor productivity. When someone takes software and abuses it, it’s never done by accident. It’s done by someone putting thought and effort into getting the computer to do something. And that means lots of wasted time and effort.

(True) Examples of Software Abuse

Please note that names and positions have been changed to protect the foolish innocent.

The Maxed Out Spreadsheet

I had a client a few years ago whose lead accountant fancied himself a programmer. The problem was, he wasn’t. Nor was it part of his job. He liked to build spreadsheets. Big, massive, spreadsheets. With lots of formulas, lookups and formatting.

One day he wandered in to complain his spreadsheet wasn’t calculating, and he was sure there was a problem in the macro. All the regular employees were out, so he was pestering me. So I looked. The spreadsheet, written in Excel, had 256 columns and 15,000 rows. This was when Excel could only handle 256 columns and 16,384 rows. It turns out the spreadsheet was calculating. It just took 8 minutes to do the whole spreadsheet.

“Arnie,” I said, not quite believing what I was seeing, “there’s too much in this spreadsheet.”

Arnie folded his arms. “But it has all those columns and rows. I should be able to use them.”

I proceeded to explain to Arnie the concept of maximum limits, and brought it down to his favorite hobby: cars. “Arnie, how high does your speedometer go?” He responded that it went up to 100. “Would you run your car at 100 for a long trip?” He was indignant. Of course not! The load on the engine would harm the engine. “Same with a spreadsheet. Don’t overload the engine.”

The sad thing was, Arnie was using the spreadsheet like a database. He was looking up part numbers and projecting usage based on production schedules. And the very information he had been calculating was available to him on the server inventory database, real-time, with the report running in under 30 seconds.

The Data from Where???

My department had been ingesting a file from one of our business partners. The accountant wanted a copy of the file. Why? Because he put it all in his own Access database so he could look at the numbers faster.

The problem was that not only did he not understand how to relate all the data properly, but he didn’t know how to use the tool. We discovered the problem after he stormed into our area and told us the data in our system was wrong and the whole department was worthless.

After we dug into what he had been doing, we saw that not only did he get the relations wrong, causing one business area’s numbers to be inflated, while eliminating another whole department inadvertently, but then he also didn’t have the rest of the data from the organization. He tried typing that in manually, resulting in multiple data entry issues and further bad results.

We produced the exact report he was looking for in under 5 minutes, and he would have saved himself over a month’s worth of work had he let us do our jobs with the real databases.

The Moral Of the Story

If you are spending a lot of time trying to get software to do what you want, ask yourself if the software was designed to do it. Spreadsheets are not databases. Home databases are not commercial grade. Word processors are not spreadsheets or presentation makers.

If your software was designed for what you are doing, and you are struggling, consider another solution. Not all software is created equal. Liken it to needing to pound a nail in. You can do it with a plastic hammer, but a metal hammer works much better, and with less effort.