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Exclusive Interview: Spreadsheets Reveal Why They’re Terrible at Tax, Audit, Finance, and Accounting Analytics

We’ve been trying to track down Spreadsheets for a long time. We scoured the Negative Zone with the Richards/Storm family. We looked behind the expired potato salad in the office fridge. We even sent Geraldo to check Al Capone’s vault again (and, yep, it’s still pretty much empty.)

We were hoping to ask Spreadsheets what really gets their wheel of death going—specifically, data management and analytics for tax, audit, office of finance, and accounting. But, just when it appeared that this dream had gone to the place where dreams go to die (aka the GC comments section), serendipity struck.

One of our writers was perusing a Saturday morning garage sale, when there they were. Hiding in the corner behind a dusty VCR and a heavily-bearded Jonathan Taylor Thomas, sorting through a bin of slap bracelets and fanny packs, there stood the ultimate obsolete relic of the 1990s: Spreadsheets, discovered at last.

(By the dubs, if you’ve got friends who are stuck in the past with retro analytics, you can earn enough cash to buy a portable CD player WITH skip protection by referring them to a modern platform.)

It took a good deal of cajoling, but our writer eventually convinced Spreadsheets to agree to an interview. (We won’t go into the entire sordid tale, but it involved a lot of complex formulas, a lengthy conversation with an animated paper clip, and a sizable donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.) What follows is the complete, unedited transcript of that conversation.

Can spreadsheets keep up with the modern business world?

Going Concern: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Spreadsheets. We think it will mean a lot to our readers. But why has it taken you so long to come forward?

Spreadsheets: =SUM(declining employment+shame+was stuck on a floppy disk for 18 years).

GC: That’s hilarious, but please talk normally from now on. Our writers aren’t clever enough to keep that gimmick going for an entire article. 

S: =FINE. Er, sorry. Fine.

GC: Appreciate it. So let’s start with the big question and the main reason we’re here. Why does it take 10 or more clicks for tax, audit, office of finance, and accounting professionals to manage their data or get useful analytics out of you?

S: Where’d you hear that?

GC: The internet. The alley behind a high school gym. In the audience of a pro wrestling match. Pretty much everywhere.

S: <Sighs.> We suppose the larger problem really breaks down into five key issues. We’ll recite them for you, but when you publish this interview, would you mind putting them into a numbered list? That will make them easier to read and should improve SEO.

GC: Um, sure.

S: Oh, and separate it with a catchy subhead, something like …

Five reasons spreadsheets don’t get along with accounting and finance data

1. We don’t like blending different data types or data from multiple sources. We’re not the Dalai Lama—how do you expect us to keep the peace between data from Access, SQL, the cloud, social media, and other spreadsheets?

2. We can’t even get along with each other. If you’re trying to juggle cross-updating spreadsheets and tabs within spreadsheets linked by VLOOKUPs and other functions, you probably won’t like the results. But a #NAME? or two never hurt anyone, right?

3. We like our data “dirty.” When you bring us data that’s fraught with errors or is incomplete, we like to keep it that way. You can try to cleanse, restructure, and reformat the data all you want—but we’re not gonna make it easy on you.

4. We can only take so much automation. We like our capabilities like we like our sports cars—manual. We’re down for a little automation here and there, but only through a perfect macro or a bug-free Visual Basic script. And even then—much like with our classic car driving record—there’s gonna be a lot of crashes.

5. We don’t like making predictions. Every yoga retreat we’ve ever been told us to “stay in the present,” yet you guys keep asking us to deliver predictive insights. Make up your minds, people!

GC: Given all of that, does it surprise you that so many financial and accounting professionals are moving away from spreadsheets and embracing modern analytics platforms like Alteryx

S: It doesn’t surprise us, but it does hurt our feelings. We’re tried and mostly true, trusted and only a little bit busted! What do those solutions have that we don’t? Wait, that was a rhetorical question. Please don’t answer it. But if you really have to, we’d appreciate it if you didn’t call attention to it with another big, bold subhead, because that would be very …

What modern analytics platforms have that spreadsheets don’t

S: … rude. Ugh, nevermind. Go ahead, please—tell us what these tools have that we don’t. 

GC: For starters, modern analytics platforms are great at knocking down data silos. They make it much easier to build data sets—even if you’re working with different file formats, database connections, or cloud data stores. 

S: Um, silos are used to store grain. If you go knocking them all down with your fancy analytics machines, people won’t be able to eat. There’s a headline for your snarky little website, “Going Concern Promotes Silo Destruction; World Starves.” 

GC: Different kind of silo. And how’s this for snarky? Modern analytics platforms clean data quickly and, unlike spreadsheets, they do it with minimal risk to data integrity. In Alteryx, you can create new columns, remove rows and columns, and change data types with a single step—a step that applies instantly across your entire data set. 

S: Bah, instant this, instant that. Everyone’s in such a hurry these days! People should stop and smell the roses more.

GC: They might, if they weren’t so busy performing tedious, repetitive data tasks. Modern analytics platforms give you more time to smell whatever you want by letting you blend data however you’d like. And Alteryx tracks everything you do, making it easy to retrace your steps and undo anything, anytime.

S: Oh, because “undo” is such a new thing. It’s called Ctrl+Z. And, yes, it can undo ANYTHING, ANYTIME, too!

GC: Sure, if you realize you want to change something immediately. What if you want to change something you did five minutes ago—or five hours, or five weeks?

S: You just keep hammering Ctrl+Z until you get there!

GC: Great solution. Speaking of solutions, modern analytics platforms allow you to transform your data into insights and answers faster and in ways that reduce errors and risks. The Sort, Transpose, and Cross Tab Tools in Alteryx allow you to organize and pivot your data in many different directions automatically—so you can see the big picture quickly. No more pivot tables. 

S: We’ve been told we “can’t see the forest for the trees,” but have you ever looked at a tree? They’re very pretty.

GC: No argument here. There’s also no argument that writing and running formulas is much easier with a modern analytics platform. Using the Formula Tool in Alteryx, you can—with a single click—add a field to an input table or create or update data fields based on an expression or a data relationship.

S: Hey, we’ve been in a relationship with data longer than anyone!

GC: That explains a lot. Speaking of bad relationships …

S: Hey!

GC: … spreadsheets can summarize data with pivot tables, but the process is way too slow, and the results are often error-prone or limited in scope. Modern analytics platforms deliver multiple results and views automatically—allowing you to explore outliers, find patterns, and ask deeper questions as fast as you can think of them. 

Take your day back from spreadsheets with Alteryx

S: Fine. You win. We still have our uses, but in today’s world, data management and analytics are just too complex for us.

GC: Now you’re getting it. Spreadsheets will always have their place, but for repeatability, transparency, and drag-and-drop flexibility, a modern analytics platform is the only way to go. And for tax, audit, office of finance, and accounting professionals, there’s no better analytics platform than Alteryx. 

S: Oh, please tell us more.

GC: Gladly. With Alteryx, you can find profit-boosting insights faster, dig up answers to just about any question your co-workers or clients throw at you, and wow your bosses with deep, easy-to-digest visualizations.

Read the eBook, “A Radical Guide to Data Analytics Mastery,” and see how you can take back your day from tedious, repetitive data tasks now.

S: We’ll read it if you buy us a slap bracelet.

GC: Deal.