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Goodbye spreadsheets?
5 min read

Goodbye spreadsheets?

You know how spreadsheets get messy really quickly? What is Airtable and what can you use it for? A brief product review.
Goodbye spreadsheets?

You know how spreadsheets get messy really quickly?  Airtable offers a way to elegantly control and manage the all the spaghetti in an intuitive way that saves time and improves communication.

How do you use spreadsheets?

Excel changed the world.  Originally released by Microsoft for the Mac platform in 1985 it is possibly the most influential software ever built.  Using excel is a prerequisite and spreadsheet gods are revered and (usually) well remunerated.  It was designed by nerds for nerds but as normal users have got to grips with the software, their needs have changed the software has evolved - there probably isn't a single problem that can't be more easily solved with a spreadsheet.  Sheets or excel are most people's go to technology hammer.

... and the problem with a hammer?

if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

I have seen spreadsheets used for everything.  From recipes to technical specifications, from to-do-list to full multi-million £ programme management. They're so useful and (most) people know how to get started.

Last year

Spreadsheet versioning used to be the mother of all problems, emailed around teams people confused themselves and each other and in the end no-one knew which version of which  spreadsheet we were working on.  Terra-bytes the size of small countries have been left to fester on corporate exchange servers clogged with cc'd copies of versioned spreadsheets.

This year

Then, Google's sheets changed the rules on excel by making them centrally hosted and created an enterprise headache because it was so useful.  Data was now flowing outside the business... Fast forward, Microsoft (finally) delivered a hosted (365) version of excel, they may still be playing catchup but users now understand that realtime collaboration and usable change logging/versioning are now table stakes.

While users learn to use more functionality, I'm thinking: linking tabs/external references, VLOOKUP & SUMIF, conditional formatting and dare I say it... pivot tables the nails continue to proliferate and just like the magic porridge pot - the spaghetti flows.

Next year

Despite noble attempts over the years to make databases easier to use (eg: filemaker & Access) they haven't really gone mainstream.  But users need more.  Forms that populate your spreadsheets, "views" of your spreadsheets that don't include everything (cost price?) and synchronisation of your spreadsheet info with other things like; dashboards, trello, CRM, mailchimp, slack etc...

What is Airtable for?

In some ways, it's just another hammer... If you get started playing around with Airtable (which I recommend - feel free to use my invite link) - it looks and feels like a spreadsheet.  It has the same sharing and collaboration that you are used to and looks on the surface like a shiny version of Google sheets.  But dig a little deeper and the game changes.

There are two scenarios that I have encountered recently where it turned out to be the perfect solution and I find myself increasingly starting at when solving problems.


Project Deployment
Working on a complex call centre project that required "cut-over" activities to take place working nights (over the course of a 3 week period) - coordinated across multiple sites internationally.  The team at each site had to handle 100s of "end points" and was required to perform tasks in a certain order once central software had been deployed.  We needed to be able to "see" when each team had completed their tasks and record issues, that could then be triaged by a central support team.

The cut-over task list was agreed (in excel) but Airtable allowed us to use the same base task list across sites, multiple times, using the "views" functionality.  Each team was able to see (only) their tasks but all tasks and all teams could be monitored centrally.  While it could technically have been managed via a plethora of hosted spreadsheets (remember almost everything can be) being able to consolidate the information proved invaluable "on the night" and also gave us single place to build reports.

User Acceptance Testing
Faced with the need to conduct extensive business user testing, a not having any specific tooling available (it does exist but I couldn't find anything that was affordable and easy to use) we needed to successfully execute a series of business scenarios before launching the new cloud hosted platform.  The testers had varying degrees of computer literacy and different departments had different scenarios.

The test scenarios were created directly in Airtable and assigned to teams/days. Initially we had testers co-located (pre-Covid) and there results we captured by a test manager, but eventually the testers we able to see the tests and report their results from their desks.  Using Airtable gave us realtime information on both the velocity of testing and pass/fail rates, with a central team in place to triage the issues.

What sucks?

So Airtable isn't the answer to everything excel.  I have found it to be extremely intuitive and easy to train BUT it requires some lateral thinking.  If you are going to design the set-up you need more than a passing interest and while much is familiar (using formulas) you need to unlearn some of your excel thinking.  There is definitely an on boarding overhead.  For me it was worth persevering, but for many it will be a bit too different.

It's expensive - although they offer a free tier which will get you quite far - the pro license gets expensive if used in anger across a big team (at $24 per user per month that adds up fast).  Airtable offer a generous "credit" system that allows you to offset the cost by inviting users, which has allowed me to avoid paying much and my use cases have been project based so haven't required ongoing licensing  - but even a few hundred bucks for a few months needs justification.  It is worth noting that not ALL users need to have paid licenses, only people creating the "bases" (think sheets) - but these types of licensing games are tiring!  Pricing is always an issue and while there is a tonne of functionality - it feels a bit too expensive right now - especially when everyone has free access to spreadsheets.

It needs a bit more functionality - at the time of writing Airtable have announced a whole new ecosystem for "apps" and I noticed that previously paid for functionality like kanban board layouts are now included (no need for a separate Trello board).  Things like charting and Gantt views are available but only on their "pro" tier.  There is a CRUD API for your created "bases" - which I can see being very useful, but my experience has been that some of their apps lack the polish and functionality that you might hope for.

The product has come a long way in a VERY short period - excel is 35 years old!  For me it really shines when working with distributed teams on time sensitive information.  It feels like a step forward for the future of work and I suspect that Airtable will be around for a long time.  For the curious - check it out, but be prepared to get your wallet out if you like it!