Why Spreadsheets Are The Biggest Gateway To Coding

Or, why “=SUM()” is the most common “hello, world” in history

Clive Thompson
7 min readAug 25, 2023


Screenshot of an excel spreadsheet with two large buttons on it, a green one saying “CHECK FOR UPDATE” and a blue one reading “SEND REQUEST”. Beneath those buttons is a spreadsheet with six columns showing tallies of drugs — it appears to be a spreadsheet for a drug company doing tests
“Pbank-Excel” via Wikimedia (CC 4.0 license, unmodified)

Every once in a while, people wonder “what’s the most popular programming language on the planet?” If you check the recent surveys, usually they’ll say it’s Javascript or Python.

But I always argue these surveys are off base.

I maintain that if you wanted to find the place where the most folks on the planet are doing programming — by which I mean they are i) issuing commands to a computer that coax it to ii) manipulate and crunch data, to iii) store things in databases, to iv) extract them, and then v) show the data someone else, and to vi) make digital tools that other folks use …

… the answer is simple: It’s the spreadsheet.

When I say “spreadsheet” I mean Excel, Google Sheets, Apple’s Numbers, or any other similar tool. This is a nuttily popular category of software: There are an estimated 2 billion people using spreadsheets on the planet.

Spreadsheets are thus the most popular programming environment on the planet.

Now, you probably noticed I called it the most popular programming “environment”, heh.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net