Is Excel like programming?

Table of Contents

If you are an Excel user, you most probably know it better as a spreadsheet. Contrary to this, Excel offers features of programming languages.
And when you incorporate VBA – an Object-Oriented language, the programming capability of excel is further enhanced.
VBA is similar to programming. Typically, VBA allows you to script excel.
The programming features in excel are wrapped in a spreadsheet-centric framework. If you are a fan of Excel, it doesn’t require much to see the parallels.
A closer look at excel reveals that it is much closer to a declarative language, and the addition of VBA brings it closer to other programming languages.
Despite this, you can’t say that Microsoft Excel is a programing language. Instead, it is a COM (component object model) component, and it offers direct support to a complete IDE.

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Is Excel a relational database

Excel is Closer to Declarative Languages

A declarative language is a programing language in which you instruct a computer about “what you want” but not “how to get ita”.  

This is how MS Excel behaves.

The terms nonprocedural or very high-level programming are terms that also refer to Declarative languages. 

Ideally, a program will specify what needs to be done instead of how to do it. Therefore, the difference between a program’s specification and its implementation is much less than procedural languages.

There are two common kinds of declarative languages:

  • Logic programing language: Now, this language works with logic, and the best known is the PROLOG, i.e., programming in logic. Ideally, you set a program as a set of logical relations. The language is similar to SQL. 
  • Functional languages: they have a mathematical style, i.e., they are constructed by applying functions to arguments. Common functional languages include ML, LISP, and Haskell and are essential research tools in developing language in some commercial projects and automated mathematical theorem provers.

Keep in mind that functional programming is just calculation. However, the calculation in a computer isn’t limited to numbers. There is the translation of numbers to names where a case function or statement is used for mapping. 

In Excel and other spreadsheets, you can map data to other data – this is a function. No difference exists between functions and data mapping. Again, Lookup tables in excel is another way of calculating.

Spreadsheet tables are similar to database tables, i.e., columnar data or records. A database lookup, as in SQL, is a function. 

Declarative languages can be functional languages, but functional languages are not automatically declarative. Spreadsheets like Excel are not languages, but they are more like programs.

NB: Excel spreadsheets can perform both conditional and iterative computation. How does that differ from the programing language?

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Is Microsoft Excel Turing Complete?

Spreadsheets are approximately computer languages. Thus, you can implement Turing Complete, but as one-dimensional cellular automation. 

You need to have a sufficiently large spreadsheet with all cells except the first row filled with an appropriate calculation. 

The spreadsheet’s width is the length of available tape, while the height is the maximum time available for the computation. Notice that Excel can invoke user-created VBA functions in a formula.

If you remove user-defined functions (UDFs) coded in a different language and circular references, spreadsheets are not Turing complete.  

The number of people programming with spreadsheets, i.e., Modelling, is more often than not, large by order of magnitude than all other programming paradigms put together.

By the way:

What is Turing Complete? 

Turing complete is a machine that can compute any magnitude problems when accorded enough time, memory, and necessary instructions. The term has everyday use in describing modern programming languages like C++, Python, and JavaScript, which are Turing Complete.  

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Excel vs. IT Systems: striking the balance

There are reasons enough to strike a balance between IT systems and Excel. Look, you can transform the use of excel from a simple spreadsheet document into an integrated back-end system. 

That is only possible if you leverage these two technologies’ robust features, i.e., Excel and IT system structure flexibility.

If you love excel, you’ll then master the formulas and functions. And thus, leverage its immense flexibility, accessibility, and immediate return. Excel will quickly crunch numbers without the need of writing lines of codes. 

That is why most people depend on MS Excel despite having other robust programming systems (IT system).

On the other hand, there are certain people who believe that Excel is prone to errors. 


Excel lacks structure. Besides, since it is easily accessible, different people can create their version of a document and claim the real one.

Now striking a balance between Excel and IT systems is a solution. But it needs integrating excel into an IT system. 

Excel is a back-end system, so treat it like other programs. Notice that its formulas and functions are primarily the codes programmed by the users instead of developers. 

So when you integrate Excel into your IT system, you give Excel the ability to mix local data with live data.

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Is Excel considered coding?

Within excel, there is a programming language. But Microsoft Excel isn’t a real programing language. But it is a back-end system, which is why you can consider it as a coding. 

The thing with excel is that it offers you a suitable sandbox for new coders to learn the basic coding concept.

While using excel, you’ll use formulas and functions. These are the codes that you program as a user—no developer program codes in excel. 

At its core, the excel interface makes an ideal beginner Integrated Development Environment (IDE) and sandbox for logical experimentation and analysis. Bret Victor identifies two crucial features when supporting quality environments for new learners.

  • Transparent functionality supporting new thinking 
  • Instant visual feedback 

You know that:

Excel comes with an inbuilt tool – the Visual Basic Editor or VBA Editor, which allows users to write macros. After launching the VBA Editor, you can type the code you want. 

VBA is a type of programming language that is used to create scripts. With this tool, you can write and edit custom scripts, which automate actions in excel. The VBA code stores each macro you record within the VBA editor. 

Excel Programming

Microsoft Excel uses VBA to do programming tasks. Ideally, with VBA, you can do more complex tasks on any spreadsheet. Such complex manipulations are not available on standard spreadsheet techniques.

Excel programming is vital in doing multiple operations like:  

  • Excel automation
  • Spreadsheet formatting
  • Custom data organization and imports
  • Data mining
  • Multi-user experiences
  • Accurate financial modeling
  • Custom templates, charts, and graphs
  • Database integration

The role of VBA is to bring custom, interactive features to life. You can completely hide spreadsheets from the user and present it as an application for front-end users or a decision support system (DSS).

Further, you can customize the user interface to ask questions to provide answers and reports as the solution. With such a tool, you can provide more detailed and accurate reports, analysis as well as the creation of automated Word reports and Powerpoint slideshows to be sent to front-end users.

Now, it is clear that Excel leans towards programming. 

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Which programming language is used in Excel? 

The programming language of excel is VBA (visual-basic-for-application)

However, the whole excel program is written in a different language.

The initial version of excel has remnants of Pascal code. This aspect is evident in how Excel performs some tasks. 

Here’s why:

The excel strings are Pascal strings – their lengths are their first byte instead of the C style null-terminated strings. This comes with the benefits of better performance. 


The vast majority of code in Excel is C with a considerable C++ for new functionalities. 

You see, 

The origin of excel is ancient, and Microsoft wants to retain at least some ability for newer excel versions to read older files from previous versions. Therefore, there are fewer odds of rewriting the codebase in bulk unless it’s absolutely necessary.

However, a few years ago, there was an attempt to develop a miscellaneous single panel in C# – no one understands the fate except developers.

Here’s the thing:

Excel has two parts – C++ and VBA!

Excel is written in Visual C++ (newer versions). Nonetheless, if you want to be really proficient at MS Excel, you need to learn VBA. 


Programing in excel requires an understanding of VBA, i.e., to develop macros and other essential operations. These operations need VBA and not Visual C++. 

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What is VBA?

VBA is a component of Microsoft’s legacy software, called Visual Basic, built to aid in writing programs for the Windows OS.

VBA is an internal program in Office applications like MS Access, MS Excel, MS PowerPoint, MS Word, MS Publisher, and Visio.

With VBA, you can customize beyond typical Microsoft Office host applications and manipulates the GUI features like toolbars, menus, forms, and dialogue boxes. 

VBA is not a stand-alone program.

With VBA, you can build user-defined functions as well as access APIs, as well as automate particular computer processes.

You can use VBA to command a computer to start an action or series of actions. However, that is only possible if you create custom macros, i.e., macroinstructions. The process involves writing instructions into the module (editing module)

A macro is a series of characters in a sequence whose input gives out an output in a sequence form, to accomplish definite computing tasks. 

And the good news?

VBA software is free since it comes with MS Office 2010.

Using VBA

Normal MS Office users VBA can reduce the repetitiveness of everyday tasks via macros. Ideally, macros automate all tasks, e.g., generating customized reports. 

For instance, it is possible to create macros that you can command with a click to make Excel build a whole balance sheet.

  1. Computer Professionals 

Computer programmers use macros to perform a more complex task. For example, they can use macros to replicate a code, design a specific language, or even merge program functions on a computer.

  1. Companies, enterprises and organizations 

If you want to use VBA outside the Microsoft environment, you’ll have to use COM interface technology. The technology lets commands interact beyond computer boundaries. 

Firms implement VBA in their applications – proprietary as well as commercial like AutoCAD, raw, v ArcGIS, Corel, CATIA, and SolidWorks.

Besides, firms can use VBA for excel customization to fit their unique purpose, like discernment of how long it takes to earn $2 million on an investment as per a given interest rate and other critical factors.

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Why should you use VBA?

  • Easy to use as it uses English like statements to write instructions
  • Friendly user interface like the one of a paint program. Primarily, it’s graphical user interface controls are a drag, drop and align
  • Short learning curve – you can start creating simple programs on your first day of learning.
  • Enhances Excel’s functionality by letting you manipulate excel the way you want it to

Why do programmers hate Excel?

Programmers are a bunch of dynamic individuals, and they dislike MS Excel for various reasons. Their main reason is that excel is a significant source of errors.

Again, those fiddling with excel and other spreadsheets are merely programmers. But that information isn’t clear. 

Remember, excel is Turing Complete.

The problems with excel include:

  1. Excel lacks traceability

Lacking traceability makes excel very problematic. Look, multiple people can edit a single file, but each creates a unique version of the file. Yet, the file is supposed to retain the original idea. 

Creating a cloud version could be better because it is stored in the cloud, and all changes are submitted with descriptions. So the cloud-based spreadsheet allows you to seed the history of edits, unlike excel.  

  1. Excel keeps data and program instructions in the same place.

Excel couples the algorithmic workflow to its data tightly. As such, it regards it as a fundamentally new spreadsheet even with minor changes. This isn’t supposed to be the case.  

Primarily, employees write terrible codes – codes that run once rather than continuous. Take this example: employees will use a spreadsheet they used last year, but just change a few things to fit this year’s need. Now, for new employees, that can be a little messy, and they” need to begin from scratch.

  1. Excel VBA is outdated and esoteric.

Real programmers dislike VBA because programmers continuously learn new languages. Keep in mind; each year, there are new programming language channels in the market. So it is only local to understand them.

VBA is a 1993 paradigm.

  1. Security issues

VBA and plugins come with lots of security intrusions injected by macros. Did you know that disabling Microsoft Office macros is one of the strategies to mitigate cyber-attack? Before you use macros, you have to grant them express permission. 

Bugs can lead to possible hacking. That’s why open-source software is available for everybody to scrutinize bugs and spot them in good time. But even with open source codes, there is a chance of bugs entering the system.  

Microsoft Excel isn’t an open-source code, and therefore, it can’t be scrutinized publicly, making it a possible target for sabotage.  

  1. Prone to mistakes

Programmers term excel as a leaky abstraction, which leads to severe mistakes while doing calculations.

Besides, Excel isn’t a highly scalable tool, which means if your business, you are likely to strain MS excel a lot. And that comes with a considerable risk of more mistakes and hence losses.

Data-processing and reporting evolve – and it is a core component of a business. Proper structuring your business will allow scalability. So try finding the right scalable computing solution to conquer your entire industry.

  1. Difficult to grasp details

To programmers, 4excel is somewhat archaic. Thus, it can be difficult for new users to use all features and functionalities within excel.

For this reason, serious programmers opt for new and easier to use programming languages. Such programming language allows for natural language processing, web scraping, monetary transactions, machine learning, and computer vision. This can enable you to automate all operations.

Besides, cloud-based programs are the real thing for businesses currently. 

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9 Reasons Excel Users Should Consider Learning Programming

In the business community, excel is a popular software, though it comes with some limitations. 

If you deal with data daily, relying on excel alone can limit your performance. That’s why you need to learn an additional programing language to help analyze data properly, regardless of your Excel skills.

The reasons include:

More robust data importing and manipulation

Undoubtedly, excel is excellent at data manipulation and importing. However, programming comes with powerful tools that can read, manipulate, and organize data easily. For instance, R reads all kinds of data. And even better, the data that it can’t read natively still works. Besides, it comes with R packages specifically for reading XML, JSON, SPSS, Excel, SAS, and STATA data files. Additionally, you can scrape data from websites and execute SQL queries.

Merging, subsetting, and recoding data are equally more effortless in R.   

Easier working with lots of data

Organizing data in excel means placing them in sheets. If you have lots of sheets, excel begins to get slow, and in some cases, it crushes.

That is frustrating. Programming languages can handle large amounts of data with a lot of ease. Again, they don’t crash like excel. So there is no worry that you’ll lose your data. 

Easier automation

Excel has an approachable user interface – you click buttons instead of writing code. Now, this becomes an issue when you are trying to automate a process or in case you want to run a single analysis multiple times.

In excel, you’ll need to open a different sheet and re-enter formulas elements you need for analysis. 

But with programs, you can automate the process by simply writing a script that will import the new data to run the same analysis and output results you need.

Less reproducible

Analyzed data is more critical when others can reproduce results to understand the process or to counter-check. Such a process can be tedious in excel – it means you have to re-enter the data in a new sheet manually.  

But with a program, you can rerun the process easier, just like pressing Enter. Besides, you can easily add comments to the code and explain what is happening.

Advanced statistics and machine learning capabilities

Coding programs like R and Python (and, of course, other) have more advanced statistical capabilities than Excel (especially R, which is meant for advanced statistical analyses). That means you can easily tackle problems in areas of statistics. 

But what is impressive is that these languages allow you to create machine language models. These models come with machine learning package integration and frameworks like caret, sci-kit-learn, and TensorFlow. 

Open source accessibility

With Excel, you depend on the manufacturer for updates and feature support. Besides, in case of bugs, you still wait upon the manufacturer. 

Compare this to an open-source program:

In open-source programs, you can examine codes for functions or computations you perform. Furthermore, you can modify and improve essential functions by changing the code as in R.  

Another good example is Python. It lets you create packages to augment the language and add functionality or improve ease-of-use. 

Both R and Python have popular and widely-used packages and libraries created by third-party developers to make data analysis and visualization easier.

Admittedly, Excel has some third-party add-ins, but because it’s proprietary software, they’re not as powerful, and it’s not as easy for you to add any functionality you might want or need. 

Easier to find and fix errors

It can be extremely difficult to spot an error in excel. It requires you to scroll through thousands of rows or opt to retrace your steps to manually point out the problem.

As opposed to this, coding languages will give you an error message immediately. And the message explains what it thinks the problem is. 

If you make comments explaining every line of code you make, it becomes easier to go back and re-check your steps. 

Cross-platform stability

You can run scripts from one programing language to another platform flawlessly. For instance, scripts from R and Python are cross-platform. So whether you are using Windows, Mac, and Linux machines, scripts will run. Sadly, that isn’t the case with excel. 

Advanced data visualization capabilities

With Excel, you can create multiple types of charts. But all these can match what a programming language can offer. Ideally, programs come with state-of-the-art graphics capabilities allowing lattice, ggplot2, and shiny packages (R).

Such an ability to create attractive and informative data visualization is essential in business.

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Excel is very common as you’ll find it in almost any office. However, the majority of people do not understand what it really is, and thus, under-utilizing its potential.

Excel is Turing Complete, but the sheet must be adequately large. That means people dealing with excel are technically programmers. 

Though excel comes with glaring shortcomings, you shouldn’t abandon it because it has some advantages over programing. For instance, it’s a graphical user interface, so manual entry is easier.

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Luis Gillman
Luis Gillman

Hi, I Am Luis Gillman CA (SA), ACMA
I am a Chartered Accountant (SA) and CIMA (SA) and author of Due Diligence: A strategic and Financial Approach.

The book was published by Lexis Nexis on 2001. In 2010, I wrote the second edition. Much of this website is derived from these two books.

In addition I have published an article entitled the Link Between Due Diligence and Valautions.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information published on this website is accurate, the author and owners of this website take no responsibility  for any loss or damage suffered as a result of relience upon the information contained therein.  Furthermore the bulk of the information is derived from information in 2018 and use therefore is at your on risk. In addition you should consult professional advice if required.