Electronic spreadsheets revolutionised the world of industry and business - and kick-started my career
in the process, says Adrian Davis-Johnston, head of research, development and innovation at Nuvia.

One of my favourite things to do is to listen to podcasts. The little purple icon is a door to a universe of stories, opinions, documentaries, drama and comedy.

My favourite podcast, which I have recommended to countless people, is the BBC World Service podcast 50 Things Which Made the Modern Economy, presented by The Financial Times undercover economist Tim Hartford.

Now in its second series, each 10-minute episode tells the unknown story of inventions and innovations which changed the world, describing in an accessible way how every day items we take for granted like air conditioning, the elevator, batteries, the clock, Google, antibiotics and the iPhone itself had such an impact.

It was while listening to a recent episode that I got the inspiration for this column.

It was the story of how a young Harvard Business School student was watching his accounting lecturer manually write up complex financial calculations on a blackboard, who then once finished, made an alteration – having to redo rows and columns of calculations to rebalance his work.

The student was Dan Bricklin, and he wondered why anyone would want to put themselves through such boring tasks. Surely there was another way?

“Laziness can be the mother of invention” states an enthusiastic Tim Hartford, a claim which resonates with me. Why do something the hard way, when you can take an easier path?

I recall getting criticised by a computer science lecturer for using WHILE loops, rather than her preferred method of using FOR statements.

“But WHILE loops are easier, and results in less code to go wrong,” I stated. Her response will stay with me forever more: “While this may be true, using FOR loops is technically correct and more elegant, so you will use FOR loops”.

This often resulted in double the amount of physical effort in typing row upon row of Java than if I used my preferred, lazy, method. The ultimate result was the same, so I stuck with my WHILE loops.

Dan Bricklin, I imagine, was having similar thoughts about his financial calculations. He was a computer programmer after all.

Inspired, Dan and his colleague Bob Frankston, worked on a computer programme that almost everyone in their academic or working life will have used a version of. Dan and Bob were the fathers of the electronic spreadsheet.

Where would we be if Microsoft Excel wasn’t just there on our desktops? Could you imagine a world where you couldn’t just knock up a little spreadsheet to do a budget or make some simple graphs?

I have Excel to thank, in part, for where I am today.

In the summer of 2001, having finished my A-levels, awaiting the start of university, my dad told me to get off my backside and get a summer job.

Which I dutifully did. My first ‘proper job’ was as a summer student in the Thorp technical department for what was BNFL, working for nuclear luminaries Andrew Riley and Mike Wakem.

For a summer, I was ‘graph-boy’ analysing seemingly random numbers from nuclear plant instruments for trends, insights into the behaviour of processes
I could not fully understand.

But I understood numbers, and I understood that these numbers meant something.

During this time I actually discovered something important. I was hauled in front of Phil Hallington to explain my results. I was asked back every summer for another placement as a result, and ultimately got a full-time job in the industry. I owe a great debt of gratitude to spreadsheets.

On October 17 1979, the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, was released on the Apple II personal computer. Its impact was immense.

Steve Jobs would later say that VisiCalc propelled the Apple II computer to the success it achieved. The predecessor of the Macintosh and everything that followed was fuelled by the success of the electronic spreadsheet. In fact, the very iPhone that I am listening to the podcast on could trace back its roots to the electronic spreadsheet.

There is a reason I have an “I love spreadsheets” mug on my desk. There’s a reason I will be celebrating the 40th birthday of the electronic spreadsheet in October.

I probably wouldn’t be writing this column, if it wasn’t for the spreadsheet.