Programming Is a Necessary Skill

The programs we use every day to create and edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations are very powerful. Word, Excel and PowerPoint all feature a long list of features and a user interface that makes it easy to access those features.

However, the tasks faced by a professional document services group are often so tedious and repetitive that even with the great user interfaces, the users face a daunting amount of work.

The good news is that the MS Office programs also feature a programming interface. Easily accessible through the Developer tab is the Visual Basic development environment (the VBE). As programming languages go, Visual Basic is pretty easy to learn and use.

Microsoft also offers programmers access to practically all of the features of the programs. For instance, you can create a new document, put a bunch of text in it, format it and save and close it, all from executing some code in the VBE.

Also, using code, you can communicate between documents and applications. For example, get data from an Excel spreadsheet or Access database and insert it into a Word document.

In my experience, using the programming features of Office has been not only convenient, it’s been absolutely necessary. Just look at the example video with the financial table. Imagine doing all of that work manually on a document with many tables. The time savings from automating the work with code is mind-boggling. And the tedium of doing it manually is soul-crushing.

And yet, firms who follow the traditional model of document support don’t look for programmers to do document support. Their traditional users spend unnecessary hours doing things manually. In the modern model, programming is a necessary skill that firms should require in document support professionals.

You may argue that a firm’s technical staff (separate from document support) can supply the macros a department needs. Sure, developers can supply some custom code that’s very helpful, but walk around and look at how much repetitive work the users are still doing. It’s because every document is different. Generic code from the developers can only go so far. A user needs to be able to code on the fly.

Users also need to recognize when a task is a programming task versus a manual labor task. If it’s repetitive, if it involves a lot of data, or if it just seems tricky, it’s likely a programming task.

A couple of recent examples from my firm:

  • An attorney had a spreadsheet with a lot of names and email addresses that needed to be normalized. He supplied a list of the names and their corresponding email addresses in a separate spreadsheet. Our non-programmer intake specialist assigned the job to a non-programmer document specialist, who proceeded to apply a copy-paste approach that would have taken many hours. Luckily, one of our programmers came in and wrote some code that finished the job in less than an hour.
  • An attorney had a large PDF resulting from a mail merge and wanted it split into hundreds of separate PDFs. One of our staffers spent a whole day doing it manually, before our programmer discovered it. The programmer wrote some JavaScript in Acrobat that did the job in minutes.
  • An attorney had a 1,000 page document with a table for each deal in a due diligence review, and needed certain irrelevant rows removed from each table. … Same story.

Other common examples:

  • Creating or fixing list numbering
  • Complex find-and-edit procedures
  • Matching rows from one spreadsheet to another
  • Making file indexes
  • Complex merge procedures

If you think that programming is too rare or expensive a skill to find, take a look at a couple of recent Wall Street Journal articles:

Who Needs to Learn How to Code (March 12, 2014) discusses much-in-demand programming courses being taken by corporate managers, job seekers and even many grade school children.

Computer Programming Is a Trade; Let’s Act Like It (August 3, 2014) makes the argument that programming has become a trade, in which a person with basic proficiency can be valuable, even if they lack a computer science degree.

As technology continues its march, people are more accustomed to computers and what they can do. They expect fast results. Even nontechnical people can have a good idea when something ought to be accomplished efficiently using a computer. Lawyers, certainly, are sharp enough to understand whether something can be programmed.

And as coding becomes more and more mainstream, people will continue to become more savvy about it, and expect that skill from staff.

Firms need to keep up with expectations by hiring high-skill people. Document support staffers who can code will make your lawyers happy and provide the return on investment you want from professional staff.