Post by Rob Collie

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NASA JPL is Using Modern Excel to Perform Financial Analysis On Their
Space Projects, Because Modern Excel is the Best.
(That’s me with Opportunity’s “sister” during a training engagement this Spring)

Too Hot for the Official Excel Blog!

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This Post Was Originally Written for the Official MS Excel Blog But Never Went Live
(Their PR Censors Deleted 70% of it and wanted big changes to the rest, so I’m posting here instead)

A couple months ago I was asked if I’d like to do a post for the official Excel.  Heck YES, I said.  (Duh).

And then I realized, I couldn’t let such an opportunity go to waste.  I had to Go Big with this one.  Roll the dice.  Use it as a chance to change the entire conversation around Excel – in ways that Microsoft itself SHOULD be doing, but hasn’t.

So many products now use “we’re better than Excel” as their entire marketing campaign.  I’m swarmed by these ads on Facebook.  And none of these other products are better.  In fact, none of them are even close to being AS good as Excel, much less better.

 

Microsoft, in my opinion, has allowed the conversation around Excel to be dictated by the opposition.  The facts on the ground out here in the real world paint a VERY clear and dramatically-positive picture of Excel.  There should be no “room” for products to say things like “let’s face it, Excel is not a reporting tool” in their ad campaigns.  (Eff you, Domo, for that preposterously stupid advertisement.  You’re a vaporware piece of crap, and Excel is actually the world’s BEST reporting tool, so you’ve got a lot of work to do before you run your mouth like that.  Now go to your room.)

After years of encouraging MS to go on the offensive with this stuff (to no avail), this guest blog on the MS site seemed like a golden opportunity to show that a stronger message works.  A little bit sneaky perhaps, but not a malicious kind of sneaky.  The friendliest kind of sneaky there is.  I wrote it, submitted it, and crossed my fingers.

And their censors basically deleted everything from my draft.

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The Room at Microsoft Where Blog Posts Go to Die

So I escalated, got some friends involved. They were a big help.  They brokered a peaceful middle ground.  I wrote a revised draft.  It made the rounds.  Things were looking good.

And then at the last minute, I was again told that it still needed a full rewrite.  Too much bravado.  A PR liability.  You know, it’s risky to say awesome things about your own product that the world loves.  Sigh.  But I get it.  PR has everywhere become a defensive game, not just at MS.  PR people lose jobs over negative incidents.  But being mediocre, staying in your lane, and not moving the needle?  That does not get people fired.  We can’t blame PR people for playing the game this way.  Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Well I wasn’t going to soften the message any further.  That was the whole point – to change the tone and go strong.  So here it is below, uncut.

The Original Uncut Version Start Here…

When I was asked to write a guest post for the official Excel blog, I knew immediately that my topic was going to be the title above. Yes, Excel is simply the best data tool in the world. Full stop, no asterisks, no caveats. Best for individuals, best for teams, best for Fortune 500 enterprise-wide scenarios, and best at any price.

I arrived at this belief the hard way – by NOT believing it – for the bulk of my career. Yes, I worked at Microsoft for 13 years, and even worked on Excel for a big chunk of that. But I never believed anything so bold back then.

So why do I now believe that Excel conquers all? Two things have changed – my perspective and Excel itself.

An Education Provided by the Real World

I left Microsoft in 2010, and spent the next five years helping hundreds of companies with their data. I was no longer “tied” to Microsoft, and was open to using non-Microsoft tools. I was looking forward to it, actually.

But for the first time, I started to witness how all of those other, more expensive, supposedly more “serious” tools are actually used.

And the shocking truth – shocking for me, anyway – is that they’re not used. Sure, companies buy them, deploy them, and instruct people to use them. But then they get used for only a small fraction of the tasks that justified their price tag.

What they do get used for, over and over again, is as an export source for Excel! I like to say that “Export to Excel” is the third most common button in data applications – behind OK and Cancel. I’ve learned that the ubiquity of the Export button is not a detail. It’s everything. It’s an admission, by those tools, that they cannot meet your needs. Let that sink in for a moment.

“Just give me all the data and I will put it into Excel” is one of the most commonly uttered phrases in the business world. I used to think that was stubbornness on the part of the Excel users, but not anymore. Those other data tools, despite their claims of flexibility, are actually quite rigid. When the realities of your business inevitably don’t quite match the “clean room” expectations of the tool, you require lengthy/expensive intervention from administrators or consultants.

That’s when you reach for the world’s most popular programming language by far: Excel. Formulas, pivots, charts, and the grid itself are, together, a cleverly disguised programming language that is learnable by “normal” people.

Excel should be taken just as seriously as “real” programming languages like C and Java. And being a programming language, Excel can handle everything that the pesky, noisy, uncooperative real world throws at you.

No data tool measures up to that today. And if a true competitor ever does emerge, it will not be a tool, but another cleverly disguised programming language, one that is readily learnable by hundreds of millions of people. I won’t be holding my breath.

I used to be squeamishly apologetic about Excel when I worked at Microsoft. “Sure, Excel isn’t quite as good as those other data tools, but it’s good enough, most of the time!”

Ugh. I’m done saying things like that. Excel is not merely “good enough.” It’s flat out better, period. For 20 years, IT and data tools vendors have been trying to get rid of Excel. There’s a reason it’s still here, and more popular than ever: it’s just the best data tool in the world. No more apologies.

“Modern Excel” Cranks Up the Power

The other big change is that Excel has quietly undergone a major revolution in recent years. It used to be “just” formulas, charts, pivots, and the grid, and that was already good enough to be the world’s best data tool.

While you were sleeping, though, Microsoft has dramatically expanded the Excel “ecosystem” of technologies. There used to be one engineering team working on Excel, and now I estimate there might be as many as ten. My personal three favorites:

1. Excel Services: a server version of Excel that provides security, cross-platform reach, One Version of the Truth, and hands-free/scheduled data refresh, which were longtime “holes” in the Excel story.

2. Power Pivot: turbocharges analysis and reporting by adding an industrial-strength (but still learnable!) data modeling and formula engine. Introduces “portable formulas,” removes the need for VLOOKUP, and extends data capacity as high as hundreds of millions of rows. Blends the flexibility, agility, and learnability of traditional Excel with the robustness and clarity of Business Intelligence platforms.

3. Power Query: finds, imports, filters, and “re-shapes” data. No matter what tool you use, one of the precursors to any analysis work is to import data and perform “surgery” on it, to prep it for analysis. Removing “noise” rows like blanks and subtotals. Transposing columns into rows. Removing duplicates. The list goes on, and until Power Query came along, all of that was manual, repetitive work. With Power Query, it all becomes very simple, and even better – the next time you get new data? Just click refresh, and all of that data shaping happens automatically.

Given the dramatic expansion of Excel’s powers, I’ve taken to referring to it as “Modern Excel.” Just calling it “Excel” doesn’t do it justice, because I’ve found that most people aren’t aware of the new features mentioned above.

And even though “traditional” Excel was already the best data tool on the planet, I still wouldn’t have been comfortable advocating it for, say, enterprise-level BI work. Modern Excel, however, is more than up to the task, and we are using it in that capacity every day, often helping companies millions of dollars.