Programming Without Tears

My wife, Susan, is a high school mathematics teacher, and for years she has kept her class records on a spreadsheet. Recently, she was looking for a better way to get gradebook data into student progress reports. My son David picked up the challenge. In just a few hours, using the built-in programming capabilities of Microsoft Excel, he had the computer converting the spreadsheet data into automated reports.

You probably aren't as comfortable with the idea of programming as a 14-year-old boy is. But anyone willing to invest a little time and effort can write programs and customize commercial applications, thanks to new software tools.

True, both spreadsheets and word processors have long offered knowledgeable users the ability to simplify actions by recording a string of keystrokes and mouse clicks in "macros" that can be played back with just a mouse click or two. But the technique can be complicated, and there's no room for variations.

CLICK FIX. Many leading applications now make it easy for a user to modify a recorded macro or to write a program from scratch. For example, you probably know how to construct a form-letter template in your word processor. With a little extra work, you could customize those letters by clicking on a list of choices at various places in the text.

Perhaps you have some simple chore--from maintaining a contact list to running the office basketball-tournament pool--that none of your applications handles quite the way you want. If you're a little more adventurous, you can go beyond built-in programming tools and create your own application with Microsoft's $130 Visual Basic (206 882-8080) for Windows or Novell's AppWare (800 451-5151), part of its PerfectOffice suite. (Macintoshes may be easier to use but are considerably harder to program; there are no real Mac equivalents.)

Visual Basic and AppWare are programming languages. But unlike the cryptic languages of old, you can do much of your programming through point-and-click choices without memorizing a lot of complicated commands. And they will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used the macro languages in Microsoft Office or PerfectOffice.

Of course, you don't want an amateur writing a complicated application that your whole business depends on. But programming tools-- even for mission-critical work --now make it much easier for the people who use the programs to play a more active role in their ongoing development.

DIGITAL CPA. A couple of years ago, for example, margin pressures in the corporate-audit business caused Price Waterhouse to decide that it needed to automate the process used by accountants to plan their review of a client's books. The company's in-house programming staff chose Allegro CL, a version of the LISP programming language, from Franz Inc. (800 548-3600) to develop Windows-based software. Senior manager Maureen McGowan, a chartered accountant who had done only a bit of programming, set to work with a small team of software developers in San Francisco.

In traditional industrial-strength programming systems, even the smallest change requires that a new prototype be generated, a process that can take hours. But Allegro CL allows for incremental changes, so McGowan could suggest a modification to the programmers and see the results almost immediately. The program, called Planet, is now in final field testing and will be given to Price Waterhouse accountants this fall. McGowan says the result should be "more consistent and efficient planning of audits"--and lower costs.

You may not be in the market for a megaproject such as Planet. But there are probably a dozen little ways in which a bit of programming might improve your high-tech life. Give it a try.

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