This is a two part blog post chronicling my journey from hating Excel to loving Excel.
Now here in Part 2, I’d like to talk about what led to me loving Excel.
Leaving Auditing and Landing in ERP
In 2005, I accidentally fell into the world of Midmarket ERP when I met David Swanson (click here), a consultant who had implemented Sage 500 ERP (formerly MAS 500) at a company that I was working at. He saw how I was leveraging the software and he offered me a job at NexTec (click here).
Midmarket ERP turned out to be a perfect fit for me, so I’ve been doing it ever since.
During my first couple of weeks at NexTec, a guy named Josh Thigpen (click here) asked me if I could create a report for him. He took me aside and showed me how to connect to the ERP database and run a SQL query. I LOVED seeing the database because it was eye opening to see how the ERP data got stored. I was able to “dust off” my SQL knowledge from my time in college and create the report.
I was so happy to now be looking at my Excel days at Deloitte in the rearview mirror (so I thought). Picking up SQL again made me feel smart again.
My Excel Turning Point
While I was still at NexTec, I got to do some work with a guy named Lawrence Gilliam (click here) for a high-profile client that you would recognize, a company that is now valued at over $2 billion.
I had a lot of respect for Lawrence. He was really smart and he had a programming background like I did. Actually, his programming background was a lot more robust than mine was.
I did some work with Lawrence on the credit card payment processing business process at this client. This was back in 2008 so things weren’t quite as sophisticated as they are now, but the lesson I learned is still applicable today.
The website accepted credit card transactions, but there were a lot of “bogus” transactions that were keyed into the site which would fail. We didn’t want to bring the “bogus” transactions into the ERP system so Lawrence had written some code that hunted for “bogus” data. This allowed the Accounting department to decide which credit card transactions were legitimate, which failed because of bad data entry, and which credit card transactions were SPAM, not worth following up on.
So what did Lawrence do? Did he write some fancy middleware application in .NET to handle this? He could have, but he didn’t.
Nope, Lawrence did something that surprised me. Lawrence used Excel.
Now, Lawrence didn’t use Excel as a manual tool. He built a data connection in Excel that could connect to the ERP database and pull all the relevant data before applying his “bogus data hunter” code.
That was very interesting to me and it got my attention. If a guy like Lawrence was using Excel, maybe I should be using Excel too.
Applying Excel to Reporting Challenges
I didn’t get to apply the Excel lesson that I learned from Lawrence until years later, after I had left NexTec, and I was working for The Robbins Company (click here), a Manufacturing company in Cleveland, Ohio.
I was a few years into that job, yet I was still experiencing an insatiable appetite for reporting from the people using the ERP system. We created hundreds of reports, but people kept asking for more.
In addition to the insatiable appetite for reporting, there was another phenomenon that I observed. I would typically create the report using a report writer like Crystal Reports or SSRS, but I started paying attention to what people did with the report that I created. Guess what? Most of the time they exported it… TO EXCEL!
So, I tried creating a report in Excel using the technique that Lawrence had showed me years earlier.
That Excel report became EXTREMELY popular. Before that report, when I would walk around and look into meetings, people would be sitting around with paper copies of manually-created reports. Now, they would all be looking at a screen where the Excel report was being displayed.
Side note, another thing that I learned was how important colors are. Adding conditional formatting in Excel made the report even more popular because it made it easier to understand at a glance.
Discovering Power BI
During the time that I was working at that Manufacturing company in Cleveland, Ohio, I had a conversation with one of my neighbors, Andy Hohman (click here), during a backyard barbecue. Andy had recently discovered Power BI, called PowerPivot at the time, inside of Excel.
A couple of weeks later, Andy came over and showed me some of the things that he was working on. What caught my attention was that he worked for a company that did around $800M in annual revenue, so they had a bunch of software tools at their disposal, yet Andy was finding Excel with Power BI to be the most powerful tool available to him.
I learned later that Andy’s experience was very similar to the experience of Bill Jelen, AKA Mr. Excel.
Click here and scroll to the 3:15 mark to hear Bill tell the story of how he used Excel to overcome the shortcomings of his company’s $100,000 Business Intelligence software
As I began to use Excel with PowerPivot (Power BI) in my organization, I was blown away by how powerful it was and how popular it was.
Click here to read more about my experience taking what Andy taught me and applying Power BI to my organization
It took me about a year to translate my SQL knowledge into the Power BI Data Model; writing a Power BI DAX Measure is a lot different than writing SQL code. Although people loved the reports that I produced, I wasn’t very successful getting others to create their own reports.
DAX, the language of Power BI, starts simple, but becomes difficult quickly. It’s more powerful than Excel formulas, but more difficult to understand.
For companies using Acumatica, I still like creating Excel / Power BI reports that others can use, but I’ve found that most Acumatica users who like Excel would rather stick with Excel formulas.
Gabriel Michaud (click here) emailed me back in 2017 with a prototype Excel Add-In that he was working on. I installed it, tried it out, and instantly fell in love. Here was a way to connect Acumatica data to Excel and write regular Excel formulas without having to learn Power BI / DAX.
Since 2017, Gabriel has built that Excel Add-In into Velixo Reports, the most popular ISV product for Acumatica.
Hmmm, should it be any surprise that the most popular ISV product for Acumatica is an Excel Add-In? As I look back on my journey from hating Excel to loving Excel, I’m not surprised.
Rekindling My Love for Excel
Now, in present day, I love Excel. But it seems that I have to keep learning this lesson over and over again.
Most recently, in my current role as a Consultant focused on the Reporting Tools in Acumatica (click here), I’ve been building a lot of Acumatica Dashboards, creating Acumatica Generic Inquiries, and building reports in Acumatica Report Designer. I’ve also been working with Power BI in Excel and Velixo Reports in Excel.
However, even when I know that the end-result will be an Acumatica Dashboard, I’m finding that building it in Excel first makes the process go a lot faster. It allows me to go back-and-forth with the client a lot quicker.
I like to use a concrete / clay analogy here. Working with Excel is like working with clay. You can make something, then mold it into something else when the client asks you to make changes. Working with Acumatica Dashboards or Acumatica Report Designer is like working with concrete. When the client wants to make a change, you have to get out the jackhammer, break down the concrete, build a new mold, and repour the concrete. Doing it first in Excel allows me to fine-tune things and get it looking the way the client wants before “casting it in concrete” using Acumatica Dashboards or Acumatica Report Designer. It’s a much better process for the client.
I mentioned Bill Jelen earlier. If you listened to the Podcast episode that I linked to, you heard how frequently Bill traveled around the country giving seminars on Excel.
I got to hear Bill speak at the Power BI User Group in Cleveland many years ago. One thing that stuck out to me was that Bill talked about how much he learned from others in those seminars. He even went as far as to say that he never gave a seminar where he didn’t learn an Excel trick from someone else.
My experience has been the same as Bill’s experience. To this day, I’m still learning new ways to apply Excel to real-world problems.
I’m so thankful that I’m no longer the kid from college who hated Excel. I love Excel!