Patrick O’Beirne on EuSpRIG and the Excel community
This is the first blog in a series of blogs on what I like to call “Excel Heroes,” these are Excel experts that have invested in the broader Excel community. Whether this is public facing through events and Youtube channels, or more behind the scenes through forums, internal support, and product development, we want to honor these heroes! We will be interviewing Excel users from a variety of backgrounds and highlighting what they’ve brought to the community. The first Excel hero and the one in this blog is Patrick O’Beirne, chairman of EuSpRIG, and one of the main collectors of the infamous Excel horror stories.
EuSpRIG is the European Spreadsheet Risk Interest Group and is a group dedicated to risk mitigation and was started simply in a symposium where like-minded people came together to discuss spreadsheet risks. The group organizes events with speakers, collects and develops academic information on the topic, and presents Excel horror stories. I wanted to interview someone that was out to help other people and I could think of no one better to start with than Patrick. I started by asking him:
What’s your history with Excel, where did it all begin?
“I have the typical history of Excel users that used Excel and became more interested in it. I started off in corporate life working in Operations Research, then I started my own company developing solutions and providing training in Clipper, Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3 and eventually Excel. It was fun! Also with the introduction of the internet I was able to not just help people in the trainings but also to invest in the larger community. Of course I learned a lot too, especially in the Excel-L forum where people warned each other of the gotchas.”
Great to hear of course that his experience, even at the beginning, was not just helping beginners but also professionals learning from each other. Of course one of his big public facing investments in the community is the risk interest group. So I asked:
How did EuSpRIG start?
“Well the idea of spreadsheet risk was big and I looked towards America assuming something had already been set up but that wasn’t the case. Ray Panko from the University of Hawaii had written a bit on spreadsheet risk and noted that several different people in Europe were interested, so he said “you should talk to each other.” That’s where it started, just a group of people chatting about spreadsheet risk and from there it became a symposium with papers and of course the visible horror stories!”
The horror stories are a collection of things that have gone wrong in Excel over the years, usually due to human error. Really interesting to read about, but also confronting in the sense that anyone can make huge mistakes! I wanted a more personal take and asked:
Which horror story stands out to you most?
“Well I suppose it tends to be the most recent ones. So the Public Health England scare where they missed several thousand COVID test results. The interesting thing is that of course we don’t know exactly what happened, some people say it’s because of the version of Excel that was used, but it turns out this issue could occur in any version of Excel if you don’t follow the proper process and guidelines.”
If that’s not a cold shower for Excel users worldwide I’m not sure what is! The fact that something so important can go so drastically wrong, and that it could theoretically happen to any of us is confronting! So I asked:
A lot of companies want to step away from Excel because of these risks, what do you say to that?
“It doesn’t matter what system you have, when faced with something a user wants to do they will always export to Excel, make their own calculations and then input it back into the old system. This means those calculations in between are unregulated and actually can provide more risk than just using Excel to begin with. One change can be for IT teams who currently don’t allow Excel users to query the data directly from the database, to access it with the right privileges.”
Patrick went on to say that with the right checks and balances there’s really not another system that can rival Excel. I want to thank Patrick O’Beirne, not just for taking the time for the interview, but for all the time he’s put into the Excel community at large. For helping make Excel use safer, and for warning the Excel community of where it can go wrong, and providing the tools to help users do it right. Find out more about what Patrick does now on his website sysmod.com.