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


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.

I didn’t call it a “programming language.”

That’s because spreadsheets are even better — at least when it comes to being welcoming to newcomers. Basically, spreadsheets like Excel or Google Sheets achieve the remarkable feat of a) rolling a programming language inside b) a code-writing IDE that also includes, natively, c) a database and d) the ability to create UIs, too.

That is an absolute home run of a coding environment, people! It is thus no wonder spreadsheets have conquered the world. They have also, along the way, introduced hundreds of millions of folks to core concepts in programming.

Let’s break this down a bit. Here’s What Spreadsheets Do Amazingly Right As a Gateway To Coding

1) Each spreadsheet is a simple and visual database

When most people try Excel, what’s the first thing they do? They just shove info into it.



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