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End User Programming Errors Resource

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Anecdotes of Disaster

  • New York Times, Oct 30th, 2003 - $1.2 Billion Spreadsheet Error at Fannie Mae. Note: The full text is not available free from NY Times. If your organization has an account with Lexis-Nexis, it is available there. A pertinent excerpt from the article

    "In adopting a new and complex accounting standard in a short period of time, Fannie Mae had to put in place a system and process to capture all open commitments and mark them to market," the company said in a statement. "To implement this standard, Fannie Mae utilized information from its internal, automated systems in conjunction with spreadsheets that made additional calculations necessary under the new rule." A spokeswoman said that one of those spreadsheets contained an error."

  • Reuters (via Globe and Mail) (registration required), by Cameron French, "TransAlta Says Clerical Snafu Costs It $24 Million", June 3rd, 2003 - TransAlta Corp. said on Tuesday it will take a $24 million charge to earnings after a bidding snafu landed it more U.S. power transmission hedging contracts than it bargained for, at higher prices than it wanted to pay."

    "It was literally a cut-and-paste error in an Excel spreadsheet that we did not detect when we did our final sorting and ranking bids prior to submission," TransAlta chief executive Steve Snyder said in a conference call.

  • RISKS vol 16, issue 72, January, 1995 - There was a big flap recently over Fidelity's Magellan fund estimating in November that they would make a $4.32/share distribution at the end of year, and then not doing so. A letter of explanation was sent to the shareholders (including me) from J. Gary Burkhead, the President of Fidelity, including the following pertinent items:

    "During the estimating process, a tax accountant is required to transcribe the net realized gain or loss from the fund's financial records (which were correct at all times) to a separate spreadsheet, where additional calculations are performed. The error occurred when the accountant omitted the minus sign on a net capital loss of $1.3 billion and incorrectly treated it as a net capital gain on this separate spreadsheet. This meant that the dividend estimate spreadsheet was off by $2.6 billion...

  • Publications

  • Ko, A.J., Myers, B.A., Aung, H.H., "Six Learning Barriers in End-User Programming Systems," VL/HCC'04: IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing, Rome, Italy, 26-29 September 2004, To Appear. pdf

    Covers six types of interactive barriers that end users struggle with, often leading to errors.

  • Ko, A.J., Myers, B.A., "A Framework and Methodology for Studying the Causes of Software Errors in Programming Systems," to appear in the Journal of Visual Languages and Computing pdf

    Classifies common programming difficulties, discusses mechanisms of human error, and describes an empirical methodology for studying a programming system's error-proneness.

  • Galletta, D.F., Hartzel, K.S., Johnson, S.E., Joseph, J.L., Rustagi, S. "Spreadsheet Presentation and Error Detection: An Experimental Study," Journal of MIS, Vol. 13 (Winter 1997), No. 3, pp.45-63. full abstract

    "The pervasiveness and impact of electronic spreadsheets have generated serious concerns about their integrity and validity when used in significant decision-making settings. Previous studies have shown that few of the errors that might exist in any given spreadsheet are found, even when the reviewer is explicitly looking for errors. It was hypothesized that differences in the spreadsheets' presentation and their formulas could affect the detection rate of these errors." (From beginning of abstract).

    Other Resources

  • The Use of Spreadsheets: Considerations for Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act a whitepaper by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Direct to the pdf, here.

  • ISWORLD Digest for Sunday, October 03, 2004.

    1. Teaching Spreadsheeting? Consider Errors
    Subject: Teaching Spreadsheeting? Consider Errors
    From: Ray Panko
    Date: Sat, 02 Oct 2004 19:57:58 -1000

    Spreadsheets have come up twice in recent ISWORLD messages. My suggestion to everyone is that if you teach spreadsheeting, teach about errors and testing. My website, has a main link on spreadsheet research. As you can see in the tables, field studies have shown that nearly all commercial spreadsheets that have been tested contain error rate. Experiments have shown that the cell error rate--the percentage of formula cells containing original errors--is about 2% to 5%. Those of you familiar with programming error rates will see that the two error rates are almost identical. As in programming, the only way to get errors down is with extensive testing, such as multiperson code inspection, which can get rid of about 80% of errors. Although other aspects of "safe spreadsheeting" are important, only testing has proven effective at getting rid of most spreadsheet errors.

    BTW, in England, there are legal requirements for testing many kinds of spreadsheets, although single-person code inspection is the norm. In not-for-attribution discussions with chief testers in two organizations, both said that they had never seen an error-free spreadsheet, and both put the percentage of spreadsheets with very serious errors at 5%.

    Ray Panko
    University of Hawai`i
  • EuSpRIG's spreadsheet mistake news stories archive, illustrates common problems and errors that occur with the uncontrolled use of spreadsheets, with comments on the risk and possible avoidance action.
  • Burns Statistics - Spreadsheet Addiction

  • Ray Panko's Human Error Website
  • Ray Panko's Spreadsheet Research website