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Excel: The Dennis Rodman Of Business Intelligence Tools - Oz du Soleil

This article at PowerPivotPro, Are We Data Scientists In Hiding? Or, Are We Formuleers? inspired me to finish this blogpost I started several weeks ago. At PowerPivotPro, Rob Collie asks what we should call ourselves other than “Excel Professionals”? People who are proficient with Excel, bring way more than some macros and bubble charts. And may be the hidden Data Scientists among us.

My blogpost is similar because after 2 hackathons, I got concerned about how Excel developers are positioned in the tech and BI communities. So, here we go! (And be sure to check out the article at PowerPivotPro.)

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In 2013 I’ve participated in 2 Hackathons. For those who don’t know, a hackathon is an event where people from different disciplines come together, create teams and work on a project. Hackathons tend to merge technology with a non-tech fields and often generate exciting results. The hackathons I’ve joined have been around-the-clock, starting on a Friday and ending Sunday night.

After more than 100 hours of these hackathons and bringing my skill as an Excel developer, here’s one thing that’s clear to me:

Excel is the Business Intelligence world’s equivalent of the NBA’s Dennis Rodman.

Dennis Rodman 5

At the last hackathon, Excel wasn’t even listed as a skill during the registration process. There was PHP, Python, SQL, R, Ruby on Rails, and some other stuff, but when it comes time to work, Excel is always nearby and needed.

Scraped some data off the internet and it’s a mess?
Use Excel to clean it up.

You’ve got a whole lot of data and need graphs and colors instead of rows and columns of numbers?
Use Excel to make some graphs.

Downloaded a whole lot of data and you aren’t sure of the quality?
Throw it into an Excel pivot table, use some conditional formatting, write a few formulas and uncover what’s what.

The trial period of a web-based app is almost over and you still haven’t gotten it to work right?
Stop. Build exactly what you want in Excel.

Can’t get a custom report in SQL straight out of the database?
Fine. Give me a data dump and I’ll create the report in Excel.

Yeah yeah! The Tableau people, the SQL braggarts and Perl coders all will show up and tout the merits of their tools and how they ditched Excel long ago. I used Tableau briefly. The learning curve wasn’t so steep and it looked promising. But $999 after the trial period … that’s steep. Every day users are not their target market. The SQL folks who parse data and say that they do everything that Excel can do, may be telling the truth but they’re way beyond basic SQL functionality. So, it’s more chest-thumping than offering a viable solution. And good luck finding and affording a Perl developer.

But who are those people? In comparison, they’re the Magic Johnsons and Dr. Js and Kobe Bryants. They get the publicity. They fill up the highlight reels.

And then there are the Dennis Rodmans!

DENNIS RODMAN & EXCEL

Dennis K. Rodman

  • #1 Rebounder over 7 seasons with 3 different teams
  • Two times All Defensive Team Player of the Year
  • 5 NBA Championships with 2 different teams

Rodman is mainly known for rebounding but let’s look at the first game of the 1996 playoffs against the Orlando Magic. The Chicago Bulls’ centers were struggling against Shaquille O’Neal. Rodman was considered a small forward, and was put in to guard Shaq. 100 lbs lighter and 6″ shorter than Shaq, Rodman successfully contained Shaq, got under Shaq’s skin and helped the Bulls whoop the Magic 121 to 83.

Dennis Rodman worked hard on the court and got shit done. RELIABLY. Yet, he only got mainstream publicity when he was being made a spectacle.

dennis rodman grab

Excel
Similarly, Excel only gets mass attention like it did when a study by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff was exposed as having a spreadsheet error that a human being made.  Oh, how the anti-Excel bloggers and journalists bucked their eyes and typed their anti-Excel diatribes with their bony little fingers. But, consider:

Question: What is the 3rd most frequent command in BI applications after Ok and Cancel?
Answer: Export to Excel.

Verily, verily. Whether it’s a calendar, timesheet app, financials, Google Analytics, contact information, Census data, SalesForce.com, or warehouse inventory the pretty little web-based app needs to have its team of fancy developers make it play nice with Excel.

No matter how comprehensive a web-based app may be, it’s never enough on its own. The data has to be exportable to Excel for an Excel user/developer to extract more from it.

POINT: Neither Dennis Rodman nor Excel developers are 1-trick ponies. Behind all the flash, something or somebody has to be back there backing up the flash.

1998 NBA Finals Game 5:  Utah Jazz vs. Chicago Bulls

 DON’T TAKE EXCEL DEVELOPERS FOR GRANTED

And those of us who are Excel developers, we can do more to be out front letting the general public know what we really do. Talking and sharing tips among ourselves is helpful and shows how tight the Excel community is however, Excel is still generally seen as an admin tool for making contact lists. People freak out when they find out what Excel can do, and freak out again over the cost for getting it to do what it do. That’s not the case with PHP developers, and it needn’t be that way for Excel developers.

We’re all a team here—all of us on the production/dev side of technology. We’ve got our strengths and weaknesses. Excel’s strength’s just aren’t as clear to the public as they could be, and aren’t as respected by the techie community as they could be. Until we get this straight, enjoy these Dennis Rodman highlights: