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Microsoft MVP Summit 2015: Reflections - Oz du Soleil
Excel MVPSummit 2015

Most of the 30-ish Excel MVPs who attended Microsoft MVP Summit 2015

Last week I participated in my first Microsoft MVP Summit and it was a great experience. Several thousand MVPs are invited–each Microsoft product has its own MVP program. Word. Xbox, SQL Server, PowerPoint, Project … everythign! There are approximately 100 Excel MVPs (Most Valuable Professionals) in the world, and I have the honor of being one, recognized by Microsoft for expertise with Excel and helping build community around Excel.

Approximately 30 Excel MVPs attended the Summit, and it was 3 brilliant days spent with the Excel development team; i.e., the people who make the tasty Excel sausage in the Microsoft kitchen in Redmond, WA. We discussed Excel in its current state, including the new features that came out with Office 2016, and explored possibilities for Excel’s future. Here are a few things to share with you.

EXCEL IS MORE THAN A SPREADSHEET

Being around the other MVPs, hearing what they do to meet the needs of their clients and employers, one thing is so obvious:

Excel is a development platform, not just a spreadsheet software.

The cadre of Excel MVPs includes people who rely on Excel in critical roles that range from Federal government and international corporations to neighborhood grocers and small nonprofits. Indeed, Excel is everywhere and being used in the most creative ways.

It was also exciting to see how many Excel MVPs are skilled in more traditional programming like SQL, Python, R, JavaScript, etc. (there’s probably even a FORTRAN programmer somewhere in the mix). These are the scary people who use all the tools together for extreme solutions.

I can’t help but think of the vendors who keep insisting that Excel is dead or that Excel isn’t a legitimate business intelligence tool. The time spent with my fellow Excel MVPs made it crystal clear that Excel belongs among the ranks of SQL, Python, etc. and these vendor’s claims are either,

  1. deliberate mumbo-jumbo coming out of their marketing departments or,
  2. they really don’t know Excel power users and the capabilities of Excel

One way to quiet that nonsense is to present ourselves as developers, and it’s really important for us to see Excel as a development platform. One reason is because the vendors that insist that they are the Excel-killer tend to be focused on something very narrow: data visualization, reporting, data storage, contact management, etc. In some instances they might actually be better than Excel for a very specific task. But they haven’t supplanted Excel as a development platform. No, no.

The $1000/person data visualization tool would probably be a horrible event planning tool, and isn’t affordable for the neighborhood grocer (probably isn’t necessary, either). Excel, however, is affordable, and it can be an event planning tool and a data visualization tool. Excel can be connected to databases that require a password for access. Excel manages inventories. Excel is often used as a sophisticated bridge between other softwares that can’t communicate directly with each other. I’ve automated Excel to complete a task that took 4 days. That’s development, not spreadsheet party games.

Seeing Excel as a development platform–not just a spreadsheet–gives us access to so much more possibility and confidence. Think about a typical sales pitch:

“Stop with the spreadsheets and spend $300/month on our inventory system”
Let’s alter it to:
“Get off of that development platform and spend $300/month on our inventory system.”

Pitch #1 is marketing that’s designed to shame people. Pitch #2 can be countered with, “give me a damned good reason to leave my development platform and commit to your one-trick pony.” There are indeed damned good reasons, but we’d then be talking about something more than unfounded shaming. We’d also be looking at whether the business needs are such that a dedicated system is preferable to continued legitimate development in Excel. That’s a strong place to stand and make good decisions.

Speaking of needs …

At the Summit we discussed the importance of getting more feedback about Excel users’ needs. Your needs!

TELL IT TO THE EXCEL DEVELOPERS AT EXCEL.USERVOICE.COM

EXCEL.USERVOICE is a site that’s monitored by  the Excel developers. They ask questions and respond. They are genuinely interested in knowing what you have to say about Excel’s current features; what you’d like to see in the future, and your comments on suggestions that other people have made. In this video, Jon Acampora explains how EXCEL.USERVOICE works.

One complaint I’ve had about Excel is how it scrolls. Have you had a problem with wanting to scroll part-way across a wide column only to have Excel snap all the way to one end or the other?

I posted that at EXCEL.USERVOICE and 2 developers replied. That snap feature will be leaving Mac versions of Excel soon, and it’ll be removed from Windows versions of Excel a bit later. You can read the exchange here.

So head over EXCEL.USERVOICE and let the developer know what you need, and check out the suggestions that other Excel users are making.

M Is For (Data) MonkeyM is for Data Monkey

During the Summit, Ken Puls (Excelguru.com) delivered copies of M is for (Data) Monkey, the book that Ken co-authored with Miguel Escobar. This book kicks ass!

The book is a 226-page exploration of Excel’s Power Query–which is now called Get & Transform in Excel 2016. If you have to rearrange or clean data before it’s useful to you, you’ve gotta start using Power Query, and M is for (Data) Monkey is an easy, thorough introduction to this feature.

In this video I show how Power Query is used to take a report that breaks the data down into a state-by-state view, and convert the report data into a format that is useful for easy access to other views of the data. And the transformation happens with no formulas and no VBA coding.

Get Power Query if you don’t have it already.

FINALLY

The MVP Summit … WOW! Sometimes it felt surreal being around all these great folks from early in the morning to too late in the evening. MVPs are a self-selected bunch, in that, building community is as important as having the skill. Therefore, the MVP world is one of conversation and exchange of knowledge. I felt that also coming from the Microsoft developers. At points there was bickering and disagreement, but overall, we’re all on the same team sharing an interest in Excel being the best product it can be for its users.

After meeting so many developers and discussing Excel’s many complexities, I was left wondering:

What’s it like when it’s time for the developers to add a new feature to The Excel? The Excel that will touch the billions of Excel users worldwide? I imagine The Excel living in a climate-controlled room at the end of a long secret passageway. On the morning that the new feature is ready, a developer is secretly chosen to be involuntarily blindfolded and driven to a preparation shelter where there’s a mix of terror and thrill of catching a once in a lifetime glimpse of The Excel. (Is it ugly? Does it have wings? Does it breathe really loud? It is docile? Those people who know the truth are sworn to secrecy.)
After a thorough washing and sanitizing of the developer, a long stick with the new feature fastened on one end is handed to the developer. With stern instructions not to drop the feature on the floor or get any sweat on it; and not to hold the stick in a threatening position, the developer is pointed toward The Excel’s den.

… I’m getting carried away! Let me stop.

BTW: on the drive back to Portland, I stopped at a small town in Washington to use the restroom. I ended up buying a hat. Couldn’t resist.WIN_20151105_23_42_39_Pro

Go! Jump into the conversation at EXCEL.USERVOICE
Go! Check out the what’s what with M is for (Data) Monkey