(oops – this post got stuck in my drafts so the timing is a bit off!)

Recently, I had the unparalleled pleasure of attending a live interview with Samin Nosrat, food columnist, cookbook author, and star of Salt Fat Acid Heat. I already knew I was a fan of her quirky, accessible and empowering writing and personality, but little did I know how much else we had in common! She talked candidly about laying on the floor (one of my favorite pasttimes!) and taking care of curly hair (helllloooo #curlygirlmethod) and being anxious (no cute shoutout for that one). While I typically object to interviewing women about beauty regimens (do we ask men about their razor preferences?), there was something cathartic about incorporating these personal, private reflections into a discussion that was otherwise about her career and public persona. I was quite literally on the edge of my seat the whole time (granted, the seats were very uncomfortable). It’s been said that she has a contagious laugh and smile (agree!), but what I also learned is that she is incredibly thoughtful and politically astute, including calling out the difference between cultural appropriation and plain, old, theft.

Another area of connection between us is her focus on beginners (which she said that she credits to influence from Michael Pollen). What an amazing thing – to be a beginner! Bless you, readers, who are early in your spreadsheet journeys. She spoke extensively about empathy and remembering mistakes in the kitchen, like failed mayonnaise (sidenote – I think all mayonnaise is a failure. EWW. Gross!) and how she weaves those memories and feelings into her writing and cooking. That’s how I want to be as a data practitioner!

Samin shared that her next book is themed “What to cook?” and will map readers through a flowchart / “choose your own adventure” experience to recommend recipes and strategies for deciding on dishes. What a cool idea!


The next day, I was minding my own beeswax at work when I had a brainwave to host a Chanukah party fundraiser. I let myself journey into this fantasy world rather than work on my immediate tasks at hand… and created a list of people to invite. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I should start a spreadsheet for planning purposes or keep the list in the Google Doc that contained my brainstorming scribbles. Ever the question, right? This question’s long lost cousin popped up yesterday when I was pulling some data for my synagogue. Should we make a new spreadsheet or add a tab to an existing spreadsheet? What is the right home for data? We need formats that are easy to remember, easy to access, easy to share, private if necessary, and able to capture the complexity of our ideas.

I’ll be honest with you – in the case of Chankkah party invite list, I stuck with the Google doc. It was simple, it’s where I was already working, it’s easy to share, I can add comments, etc. I had an inkling in the back of my mind that I might use an e-card to send actual invitations, so I didn’t need a spreadsheet to keep track of RSVPs. I MIGHT want to keep track of fundraising contributions… but I haven’t decided yet. It would be annoying to do that in a Google doc rather than a spreadsheet. Then again, I can always change my mind later!

Here are the questions I ask myself when I decide whether to use a spreadsheet, a google doc, a database, or another program.

  • Am I writing paragraphs?
    • Google Docs/Word
  • Do I need to sort into categories?
    • Google Sheets/Excel
  • Are other people involved in the project? Do they need access?
    • Google docs or sheets!
  • Is the project top secret? Do I need security/privacy controls?
    • Store on my local computer
  • Do I need graphic design elements?
    • Hire Bloom Glory if budget allows!
    • Try Google Docs templates, or something like an Evites (if I’m planning an event), mock up images in Instagram, then Canva if I’m feeling fancy
  • Am I making a list?
    • Pen and paper / Google Docs/Word
  • Am I tracking things based on my list?
    • Like RSVP, food allergies, bringing kids, etc
    • Google Sheets or Excel
  • Do my attributes have attributes? (aka Call #1, Date, Outcome; Call #2, Date, Outcome)
    • Can I do it for free in Airtable?
    • Time to start exploring databases

It’s always a good idea to pick the least complex format that can help you achieve your goal, no matter what your goal is! So, like, for my personal to do list – I usually use a post it! I don’t have to share it with anyone, or hold onto it permanently, I don’t need automation etc. There is nothing wrong with that! I may be a spreadsheet evangelist, but I care even more about getting the job done so that I can have more time for lounging on the couch with Samin Nosrat.

Right now, I’m attending a big ole conference in San Francisco and learning lots (and even presenting!) about complex tech solutions – quantum leaps beyond my current capabilities. If my order of complexity goes like this…

post it list -> google docs list -> spreadsheet -> Airtable -> database -> ??? custom code ???

… what I’m being exposed to here is the gradations of custom code and even tools that go beyond what I would consider regular old code (like analytics, data vis, data warehouses, natural language processing, predictive analytics, AI bots, etc!).

It’s a humbling and exciting experience – as my knowledge base and confidence grow, I am also in awe of all that I don’t grasp!

As an avid home cook and proponent of cooking what you have around, (ok ok I tend to have a well stocked kitchen to start out with…) I’m excited to explore applying the metaphor of “recipes” or “30 minute meals” to spreadsheets for changemakers. Does it seem easier to make a layer cake for the first time than setting up some spreadsheet formulas? Maybe because you know that you’ve taken cooking risks before – and they’ve turned out well. Or maybe it’s because the culinary world has figured out how to make directions that are perfectly suited for beginners (think, cooking shows, beginner cookbooks, pre-processed ingredients, etc).

If you’re not sure where to begin, or you have a data quandary and you don’t know the best format to get started, send me a note! I’d love to hear about your idea and blog about it here!

One thought on “beginner friendly

Leave a Reply