Do you look at reports more than code?

It was my first job fresh out of university. I was excited and ready to rock and roll. They gave my a bunch of specification documents to read and a bunch of monthly reports. My primary task then was to make sure the monthly reports come out “normal”.

The definition of “normal” was to make sure the numbers in those reports don’t vary too much from last month’s reports. We’re talking 5 to 7 digits of debt value here.

As I continued working in the corporate environment, I found the production of reports to be extremely important. Inputs go in at one end, such as telephone call lengths, number of text messages, ringtones bought, Internet connection length via satellite, number of emails sent. In the middle, we process them according the price plans the company had set. At the end, we calculate how much we need to bill the customers, or how much profit we share with partners, or how much the customers of our customers had used.

The end users don’t want SQL statements. They want a report, usually a PDF or Excel spreadsheet.

At the start of my corporate programming career, I was proficient in generating PDF reports using Crystal Reports. That’s just a weird turn of events. My team manager had enough front-end programmers for web development work. He also had enough back-end programmers for the number crunching price/settlement plan calculations. But he needed someone who can turn the results of those calculations into beautiful reports. That’s where I come in.

Then I left the company for a startup. It was something to do with searching patent information. No reports there, but we still needed to present the results to the customer.

Then I left the startup (cough) for a small development firm. I was assigned to a team doing enterprise software for a company. I had to go through a fingerprint scanner every time I needed to go to the loo (I’m not kidding). Lots of reports too (no, not about toilet visiting frequencies).

Then I went back to the first company I worked for. I went to another team. This time, the users of that team wanted their reports in Excel spreadsheets instead of PDFs. Why? Because they can work with the numbers inside.

They can work with the numbers to generate their own charts if they want to. They can sort if they want to (you can’t sort data in PDFs). They can swap columns if they want to. They can highlight values if they want to.

And then I understood something. Data trapped in a database is useless, unless it can be meaningfully presented to someone who cares about it.

Does your brand new startup website/service/product allow your customers to get their information easily (and in a meaningful manner)?

A Twitter feed in RSS/XML format is not useful if your customers don’t know how (or want) to format it into something readable. A straightforward database dump might not be useful if there are multiple relationships between tables. Those high score values won’t be meaningful if they were hidden among heaps of columns of irrelevant data to your gamer customers.

Also, it’s currently tax season and the start of the financial year for some companies. Lots of reports needed. I’m currently running a promotion for a software library (that I wrote) that generates Excel reports. Check it out here if you want. Until 16 April only.

In the age of the Internet, information is aplenty. Making all that information meaningful is harder. Writing code to present data is just as important as writing code to receive and crunch and manipulate data.