Why I developed officeAutomata - Cortana for Excel

It’s a question that keeps arising these days, which I find surprising. Why did I develop officeAutomata? What, particularly, drove me so much to distraction that I felt I had to create my own tool? Mostly when people ask this they add their stories of frustration and how they would have, if they could have or if they had the time. So, I thought it would be a neat introduction to let you know some of the history of why I started on this path.

Back in 2010, I was working as a program manager in the U.S Air Force. I worked on development projects and my primary tool was MS Office; Word for contract development, PowerPoint for staff presentations and like millions of workers across the U.S and the globe, I relied heavily on Excel for accounting and budget management, incentive fee management, Risk management, logistics management, hardware/software specification management etc…

 Lots of meetings like this...

Lots of meetings like this...

All of the programs we use everyday have their annoying quirks but with PowerPoint and Word, regular usage unveiled solutions. Excel remained the big mystery and I found I wasn’t alone. Given that it’s the most widely used data and accounting management tool (Rexer Analytics, 2013, BARC Research The Planning Survey, March 2014) in the world, it’s surprising how little the average user knows about it. The capabilities of Excel are large but most of us aren’t using them. I had a minor background in computing – using Linux, some HTML/CSS, regular Windows system maintenance etc. but as I worked to increase my skills with Excel I found it challenging and discovered that it quickly progresses into complex math or programming with Visual Basic and I didn’t think I required that level. There were things I was doing manually when I could have been using macros or VLookUp’s and IF statements.

 

On a day-to-day basis I was pretty happy but in the big picture I understood that as technology developed, some of the work I was carrying out could be automated. First I thought it would be helpful to have an assistant who could teach me the things I wasn’t aware of in Excel, then I dreamed about a J.A.R.V.I.S type who could watch me work and provide recommendations and provide tips and tricks to speed up my work. If someone was simply walking around the office, watching people work and could advise on what someone had done when they had been working on a similar spreadsheet. Eventually I thought that if a computer had the intelligence it could carry out parts of my work.

It didn't seem like anyone else was working on systems like that, so that's what I wanted to create.

I started as an average Excel user, so I began to develop it for my initial needs. In speaking with others on the development of OfficeAutomata, I learnt what others deemed useful, some easy – wanting to automate minor things without learning how to program or resorting to macros, some more difficult – bank reconciliation, version control. It also emerged that having historical files of work completed and version control of files would have been very helpful for Excel files being passed around the office. Being able to see changes in files without locking people out of most functionality and remembering what I did last in a workbook also made my list and that’s why I built the officeAutomata as an audit trail prior to building the Cortana for Excel expansion.

Now, I am developing it more as a programmer and looking at the more complex ways it can be used but I feel I’ve fulfilled my initial aims for the regular user and I’d love to hear your feedback.

I left working with the Air Force in late 2013 and decided to pursue the idea more aggressively. I started to learn programming in January 2014 and the development of officeAutomata came from my own personal frustrations and my efforts to solve them in a user-friendly way. If you have any suggestions on functions you’d like to see, please let us know in the comments or contact us directly.