Spreadsheet hell - the Devil's guide

Share this content

As well as writing the definitive book on spreadsheet integrity, Patrick O’Beirne circulated a little Halloween treat last month in the form of the Devil’s guide to spreadsheet creation.

For your entertainment and education, here are some edited highlights from this timeless classic:

  • Just do it. Jump in and do it. The users will have to accept whatever you produce anyway.
  • Fire, then aim. You know what is really needed without having to ask.
  • Never simplify (that just makes it easier for other people to get your job); just keep adding bits without removing old stuff.
  • Documentation is for wimps; specifications are for the timid.
  • Don't fill in the properties sheet, they'll find out you were the author.
  • VBA (Very Buggy Application) debugging is easy; just keep making changes until something appears to work, then your responsibility is finished.
  • Mix input data with calculation cells to keep the users on their toes.
  • Format with as many decorative colours and styles as possible, to relieve boredom.

The full manifestation of spreadsheet hell is available on O’Bierne’s Sysmod website.

O’Bierne advises that the consequences for giving in to the listed temptations are illustrated by the horror stories documented on the revamped EuSpRIG website.

After a period of inactvity, O’Bierne has taken over responsibility for this legendary catalogue of Excel disasters and added some new episodes. The most recent is drawn from a Financial Services Authority action against the investment banking division of Credit Suisse.

In February 2008, the bank announced that it was repricing some of its asset-backed positions because of pricing errors committed by a number of traders in its Structured Credit Group (SCG). The FSA concluded that the UK branch of Credit Suisse had failed to put adequate systems and controls in place to identified that the overvaluations had occurred.

According to the regulators, the division’s trading business was “complex and overly reliant on large spreadsheets with multiple entries. This resulted in a lack of transparency and inhibited the effective supervision, risk management and control of the SCG.”

If this pattern was repeated in other banking groups, perhaps Excel played a more significant role in the global economic meltdown than we realised at the time.

Replies (6)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By dahowlett
13th Nov 2009 12:44

How many years?

Have I been ranting about this topic?? At least 12...

Thanks (0)
By David2e
13th Nov 2009 12:48


An excellent guide for people not to follow.

I'd add:

Don't consider automation. Repetitive tasks done manually keeps you busy and fills your time that would be spent do other things anyway.

I'm sure there's quite a few that follow many of these points!

David Toohey
The Accountants Circle

Thanks (0)
By sysmod
13th Nov 2009 12:53

i before e except...

in words like "weird" and some names 8-)

Thanks for the reference, John.

Eusprig welcomes other contributions to our horror stories page.

For more, read the comments at Debra Dalgleish's Horror competition:


Patrick O'Beirne


-- http://www.sysmod.com

Thanks (0)
By daveforbes
13th Nov 2009 13:26

Monster spreadsheets
When I first started out writing tax software in 1992, until sales started to come in, from time to time I used to run MFC/C++ programming courses for a leading training company. On one such course there were a group of developers from the derivatives section of merchant bank learning about C++ because they needed to re-implement their spreadsheet in a compiled language to run faster. In excel it was so monstrously large that choosing recalculate took 47 hours !

Thanks (0)
By 0171097
13th Nov 2009 15:29

Not the prettiest

I hope they're better at spreadsheets than they are at web design! That's a shockingly bad website layout.

Thanks (0)
By stgreg
20th Nov 2009 10:50

Brilliant and one more....

Particuarly relevant to new graduates..

If you need to add several figures together into one cell do it on a calculator and then enter only the total (so no one wil be able to track the figures through).

Thanks (0)

Related content