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4 Insights From My Excel Students - Oz du Soleil
Master Dawn Sardiñas

Master Dawn Sardiñas

Master Dawn Sardiñas, a friend, New Yorker, and co-founder of Gotham Martial Arts came through Chicago recently and we sat on the riverwalk at Whole Foods and chatted about all manner of things. Most interesting was what we notice as teachers:

  • Students bring real life to the classroom
  • The wide variety of students will bring up topics that we would have never encountered had we been dedicated to a single job and focused on only what’s needed to succeed in a dedicated role.
  • We get the opportunity to empower what they need and create unique solutions.

I asked Dawn, “what’s an example of something you may have never thought of?” She gave 2 examples:

  1. Because of her students, some of whom have experienced domestic violence, she developed a Taekwon-do curriculum that’s vastly different from standard self-defense. When you live with someone, using martial arts to disable can be too extreme. So, her curriculum is designed around submission holds.
  2. She’s listened to her child students and they bring up bullying. Again, teaching a child to incapacitate another child would be excessive. So, Dawn is currently working on a self-defense curriculum that’s appropriate for children who are being bullied.

Dawn herself has never been a victim of domestic violence or bullying but, she listens to her students and develops new solutions.

♦ ♦ ♦

In the areas of Data Management and Excel, I owe special thanks to my students for their insights that broaden my perspective on how people in the trenches are dealing with data. “Big Data” isn’t on their minds. Here’s what they’ve taught me:


Catacombs This was the most shocking to me. There are a lot of people who don’t develop spreadsheets but they get spreadsheets that they need to understand. There are formulas that look like gibberish, and references that they can’t follow, and it’s like crawling around in catacombs. Imagine seeing something like this if you don’t write formulas:


You can hear someone screaming, “Aw, c’mon! Really?” For people like this, it’s helped to teach a workshop just on Excel formulas; list the things they’ll see, build some formulas, and do forensics on wild formulas. In the formula above:

  • “MWD!” is  just a reference to a worksheet named MWD, and we know that because of the exclamation point
  • A2 refers to a cell on MWD
  • LEFT, IF, ISERROR, FIND and LEN are functions
  • ″  ″ means ‘space’

PURPOSE: The formula isolates first names from middle names, middle initials, and last names. It does so by finding the first space in the cell, if there is a space.


This is a big one. It’s also hard to think of a practical solution because data parsing is a specialized skill. When people learn analysis in a formal manner, the datasets are clean. At the hackathons I’ve attended, we were provided clean data. But the hosts did mention the anguish of, “we spent the past 2 weeks cleaning this data for you. So, it’s ready to go. You can trust it.”

  • They’ve cleared the duplicates
  • They’ve cleaned up inconsistencies (e.g., Wisconsin, Wis, WI)
  • They’ve consolidated datasets from multiple sources
  • When entire addresses were in a single cell, they’ve peeled the addresses into useful components

It’s common to hear that people who’ve been trained on clean data, have no clue where to start when they’re handed messy data. The default move is to spend long painful hours manually moving the data around. Three suggestions:

  1. If the needed data parsing is the same thing on a regular basis, it can help to get training on just that. One student was able to eliminate 8 hours of weekly manual data-parsing just by learning absolute cell references and use of helper columns.
  2. If the data parsing is on-going and inconsistent, it’s best to have a specialist either on staff or contracted out.
  3. People who don’t know how to parse data need to open their mouths and ask for help. This 9-minute video, Converting Columnar Data Into Sortable Rows, shows how someone could have saved herself 4 hours had she asked for help.


Time and time again students tell me, “I took an Intermediate Excel class. My job spent $1000 for me to go. I understood everything but don’t feel comfortable at all. 3 observations:

  1. Real life tasks don’t show up as Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced.
  2. Advanced-level concepts (e.g., pivot tables and histograms) are great, but not if you don’t know how to re-shape your real-world data to take advantage of the advanced concept.
  3. Some people grasp concepts. Other people need examples directly related to what they deal with.

I think people would get more from tutoring or custom courses than from general courses, especially when there are major data-parsing issues. Solutions can be so unique that it’s just not reasonable to teach it in a class of 20 people. Specialized courses are good solutions. One example is the Excel Dashboard courses can be found online. Very practical. But if you go through standard Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced courses, dashboard development would be far off in the distance … unnecessarily far, and expensive.


good enough road sign   It’s great to have a “solid foundation.” But it can be overkill and unnecessarily disruptive to a person’s core competency.

photographers warehouse managers chefs non-profit volunteer coordinators
event planners travel agents recruiters
realtors videographers landscapers
None of those have “analyst” in the name but they have to deal with data and they need to know it “good enough.” Chris Penn wrote a fantastic blogpost: Avoiding Magic for Magicians. It’s a warning for any kind of expert who shares their knowledge as if every sensible human being wants to be a fellow expert. No. No. A busy professional event planner is dealing with clients, caterers, decorators, and space owners. The spreadsheet she uses for managing RSVP details has got to be good enough. There’s no time or need for a week-long course in Excel, or MySQL. Such people need enough functionality to responsibly keep moving forward.


Talking with Dawn about teaching was enlightening and invigorating. Until that conversation, I’d never thought of what the students provide for us. And with their needs, observations, frustrations and methods, Dawn and I see teaching as an opportunity to empower people. It’s true: if you want to learn something, teach it. But it’s got to be a 2-way street. Master Dawn Sardiñas is an excellent example of a teacher who listens to her students’ needs, mixes them with her professional expertise, and creates new possibility. Students should demand that of their teachers in whatever area they’re taking on new skills.

catacombs photo credit: agomezig via photopin cc