Beyond spreadsheets: Technology round table, part 1

Experts explore what the next few years have in store for accounting technology. First of two parts.
By Jeff Drew

 Beyond spreadsheets: Technology round table, part 1
Illustration by loveguli/iStock

Is it the end of an era if virtually no one notices?

That question seemed relevant last fall when IBM officially ended support for Lotus 1-2-3, which was once the world’s dominant spreadsheet program. Because Lotus was eclipsed by Excel long ago, its demise was barely noticed in accounting circles, where the spreadsheet application was once hailed as revolutionary.

A few months after Lotus’s quiet goodbye, the JofA gathered three of the accounting profession’s top technology experts for the publication’s annual technology round table. The experts—David Cieslak, J. Carlton Collins, and Rick Richardson—discussed the current state of technology in the accounting profession, how they foresee technology evolving over the next few months and years, and what CPAs need to do to keep pace.

Among the topics that sparked debate was the future of the spreadsheet. Could any current products relegate Excel to Lotus’s fate? Or will Microsoft’s ubiquitous spreadsheet application stand the test of time?

Those questions are addressed in part 1 of a two-part edited transcript of the conversation. Part 2, which will appear in the June JofA, features an in-depth and impassioned discussion about what the experts see as a cybersecurity situation that could prove disastrous for CPAs and their employers and clients.

The JofA interviewed the experts in a January conference call. Profiles of the panelists and the first part of the edited transcript follow:

The panelists

  • David Cieslak, CPA/CITP, CGMA, GSEC, principal and founder of Arxis Technology and a popular technology speaker known as Inspector Gadget.
  • J. Carlton Collins, CPA, the CEO of ASA Research and author of the JofA’s monthly Technology Q&A column.
  • Rick Richardson, CPA/CITP, CGMA, founder and managing partner of Richardson Media & Technologies and a speaker on the future of technology.

What do you see as the future of the spreadsheet?

Richardson: A product called Tableau. It’s not cheap—about $999 for a personal version. If you want it in a professional setting, it’s about $2,000, but it comes not only in a desktop but in server and online versions and offers data engine capabilities that we couldn’t get in a spreadsheet­—with query capability, easy language development for problem-solution settings. It’s pretty slick.

Microsoft offers an incredible product called Power BI as part of the Office 365 service—it’s a collaborative way to access reports from anywhere on any device. And BI has announced a whole new set of capabilities for interactive charting and graphing, and visualizations for dynamic data that change on the fly as the user is looking at it.

So some of those features are going to be even more important to us—like dashboards and the ability to support other software-as-a-service (SaaS) kind of applications like Salesforce or XenDesktop or even Microsoft’s own Dynamics CRM Online.

The ability to have that functionality native on a tablet like an iPad becomes an incredible tool for the professional. It really does move past that point of just the traditional spreadsheet rows and columns to a brand-new level of data analysis.

Cieslak: One of the products we work with is Adaptive Insights, and it essentially positions itself as a replacement to the spreadsheet—a super spreadsheet if you will. It still uses the rows-and-columns paradigm, but it allows you to do high-powered financial modeling, financial reporting, consolidations, budgets, and forecasting.

With this approach, you’re leveraging people’s comfort and familiarity with spreadsheets but then saying, “Let’s bring some more horsepower to the mix.” It could be a SaaS-multitenant solution like Adaptive or Host Analytics or even an Excel-based add-on like BizNet, which is another product we’ve been working with and are very delighted with. It allows you to do a lot of heavy lifting quickly without having to become an Excel maven, and it helps you get a lot more out of the paradigm without requiring that you spend hours and days and weeks becoming a spreadsheet guru.

Carlton, as an Excel guru, how do you see this evolution happening?

Collins: I predict that CPAs will still be using Excel 100 years from now. The product’s utility will simply live on forever. Of course, Excel will continue to improve, as evidenced by the new business intelligence capabilities of Excel 2013/365, which include Power Map (see “Technology Q&A,” JofA, Dec. 2014, page 78) and Power View. Not only do these new tools enable CPAs to plot data on charts and maps and then set that data in motion, they also enable CPAs to produce and share videos of this data, which I think will be a future trend—just as a picture is worth 1,000 words, putting data into motion and animating that data on a map will be worth 10,000 words.

On the hardware gadget side, David, you have talked about wanting to make your computer bag thinner. Can you project out to later this year, and then maybe out three years? How small can you get that bag?

Cieslak: I like hybrid tablets such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. It’s actually both a tablet as well as a desktop replacement. There’s still going to be a role for a desktop computing device. We want lots of screens and screen real estate so we can view as much data as possible, and I don’t see that need ever going away. But it would be nice for that device to be same one that you can grab and go with. We’re seeing a lot of people picking up 13-inch hybrid tablets to function as a tablet as well as a desktop replacement and really enjoying the experience, so I like that notion.

I’m excited about the potential of the new Intel Core M processors. These units use a new manufacturing technique, resulting in smaller, thinner, and cooler processors. And because Core M CPUs won’t require a fan, devices should run longer, too. I really look forward to seeing what the next generation of computing devices are.

I believe there is going to be continued movement toward fewer devices. So, much like the smartphones helped us get rid of a lot of other devices, I’m looking for the next generation of tablets to maybe formally start to eliminate a true laptop for the end user.

Along those lines, there are new power solutions coming, so devices can run longer on a single charge—maybe even all day. Even the power adapters themselves are shrinking in size. So any-and-all-things tablets just reduce the weight of what we’re carrying around as well as continue to help make it very much a grab-and-go experience where there’s not a whole lot of time undocking and redocking the devices. I should just be able to drop the device on the desk, and all of the sudden it recognizes where I am and reconnects with the monitor and so forth. I think we’re going to see more innovation on that front as well.

Collins: I disagree with David about desktop computers being unnecessary. I have a couple of Ultrabook-class laptop computers, a Microsoft Surface Pro, an iPad, and a smartphone, but I generally don’t use these devices to get the bulk of my work done. I prefer to use my powerful desktop computer with 80 inches of monitors equipped with multiple scanners, printers, web cameras, a Blue Yeti microphone, an ergonomic keyboard, and an executive leather chair.

The comfort of this “command center” enables me to work productively all day; I’m not nearly as productive when using my less-ergonomic mobile devices. With those, your neck has to crane down to look at the device, and that’s not healthy for your posture. Your monitor should be at eye level so your spinal column supports the weight of your head. In addition, I prefer to use a mouse, not a touchpad, because I’ve found the mouse to be a quicker and more versatile input device.

For these reasons, I believe the desktop computer still plays a significant role for CPAs, particularly those who crunch and create data. In contrast, if you’re an executive CPA who really doesn’t crunch the data and all you need to do is consume the data, then these mobile devices may be all you need. Further, I think tablet devices have been a fad that are on the way out for a lot of CPAs. They’re great for consuming data but not so great for getting work done. Instead of tablets, I think CPAs would be better off carrying an Ultrabook-type device, which is basically a larger tablet with a built-in keyboard, as these devices give you both the simplicity of a tablet and the power of a laptop combined.

As for the CPA’s tool bag, I prefer to equip my staff with a powerful smartphone with multiple recharging cables so they can recharge anywhere, and maybe an earpiece for their headset so they can communicate hands-free. I like my staff to carry some type of external drive device, but not a thumb drive. SD cards are better than thumb drives because they don’t have to be removed from the mobile device when transporting them—just leave them plugged in to keep track of them more easily. In addition, I like my staff to carry a one terabyte or larger USB drive so they can grab volumes of data from clients, if necessary. I also prefer my employees to drive automobiles equipped with Bluetooth hands-free phone capabilities and a GPS mapping guidance system. This last gadget may sound a little extravagant, but it makes me far more productive, so I know it would make my employees more productive as well.

Richardson: I do different work when I’m on the road than I do when I’m sitting at my desktop. So to say I need a computer that can replace my desktop and my laptop doesn’t make sense for me because the kind of work I do is different.

For me, a tablet with a detachable keyboard is a perfect alternative because I am consuming more when I’m on the road than I am creating. It’s only those times when I know I’m going to be at a client’s site for a long period of time that I want to make sure I have something robust enough to really get some of the things that I normally do in the office while I’m at the client’s location or at the hotel. In those cases, it’s almost certainly going to be a laptop with enough functionality and size to be able to get the things done I need to do.

The tablet has changed the way I read. It’s something that I spend three hours with every night because it’s far easier for me to manage my overall reading process for all of the research that I do than it is with either a laptop or a desktop.

So, for me, having a laptop that’s got a detachable keyboard makes a lot more sense. I think the smartphones are going to just continue to get better and better, and I’m going to have one of those in my bag.

One other thing that just came out—or that I just got a chance to see—is a new set of lithium ion disposables that are little cubes done in cardboard, and they’re very lightweight. You tear one or two off—they can either be a two-, four-, or six-hour variety—and you plug them into the bottom of your phone.

The value to me is that you can put 10 or 20 in your bag and you’ve increased the total weight by about 3 ounces because they’re very light and they’re very adaptable. So from a weight perspective, I like it a lot, and I like that I can just plug in one of these things and not have to worry about finding a wall outlet until I get to the hotel.       

What are you most excited about for the next 12 months?

Collins: In January, Microsoft launched a new business and public tool called Microsoft Delve, and it’s included with select Office 365 Business plans. Delve utilizes a machine-learning tool to map relationships between people, conversations, calendars, emails, email attachments, SharePoint business files, OneDrive files, mobile device files, pictures, and videos—all in an effort to automatically organize your data across your many platforms. This technology pulls everything together so you don’t have to search so hard for your data (see “Technology Q&A: Delve Into This”).

A lot of people are predicting that wearables are going to become the big rage, but I think we’ve already been down the small-as-possible smartphone path only to return to larger smartphones. I predict that while wearable devices with Hello Kitty logos may be a big hit in middle school, most professionals will forgo wearables in lieu of lighter versions of today’s larger-size smartphones—at least until the lapel-pin-size communicators featured in Star Trek become a reality.

David, I know you love your Pebble Steel. Do you want to comment?

Cieslak: Yeah, it’s so funny because, as I’m listening to Carlton, I’m looking at my Pebble and thinking about how much I appreciate its notification capabilities throughout the day.

I’ll just use a few examples. When I’m traveling, my smartwatch notifies me of a delay in my flight, and I’m not always having to fish for my phone because I think I just heard a notification ping off. Or I get a text from my spouse, but I’m in a meeting; I can just look down at my watch and think, “OK, I’ll give her a call at the next break.”

I have Apple Pay configured on my iPhone, and so every time my credit card gets used, I get a notification on my wrist on my Pebble smartwatch. It’s about understanding what information to send to the user’s wrist, and not overplaying it. So I like the smartwatch technology. It most certainly isn’t a replacement for a smartphone, much like a tablet isn’t a replacement for a desktop experience. I just know how valuable it is for me.

Richardson: I am an outright fan of Apple Pay. This whole idea of being able to not have your credit card number go to a vendor when you pay for things—I think the more I can do it that way, the better I’m going to like it, and a smartwatch just makes it even more convenient.

Having said that, two other things that I think are outside the bounds of public accounting but are part of the world we live in—one is 3-D printing. Last year I forecasted it would be a big thing, but principally for manufacturing—for parts—and that whole renaissance happening in manufacturing.

I have seen recently three or four articles on the use of 3-D printing for medical purposes. And there’s one in particular where a baby was less than a week old and had a hole in her heart. The heart was so small it was almost impossible to figure out how to work on it. They ended up printing four versions of the heart so that the four surgeons who were going to work on the thing had something to practice on before they got in to do their work. It also cut the amount of time that the baby had to be under a general anesthetic from 11 hours down to three hours.

When things like that start happening and we start seeing the potential for other types of devices—medical devices being done as a result of using human tissue as part of the printing process—I think it’s going to be some pretty exciting stuff.

Last but not least, I am waiting for the smart television. But, for me, the smart television has to really be smart. And what I mean by that is it’s got to take voice commands, it’s got to be such that I don’t have to worry about the six HDMI ports on the input process or how to get the audio system to tie in.

It’s the one last place in the home where we’ve surrendered to a 56-button remote—three or four of them—or if we’re even forward-looking, we get a Logitech Harmony [universal remote control], and we have it all on one 56-button remote. I want a one-button remote, and I want to just tell the thing what I want to do and have it get smart enough to realize what I like watching and start anticipating my needs. That’s probably two or three or maybe even four years away.

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at or 919-402-4056.


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