Q & A About Being A Nerd

A few weeks ago, I'd noted a Globe and Mail story that described Excel expertise as if it were a new fashion trend. That tickled my fancy, and I think the article turned out great.

However, there were a bunch of questions that Tralee Pearce, the story's author, asked me which didn't make the cut for the newspaper. Since I'd taken the time to write out answers, I thought I'd share them with you. Tralee graciously gave me permission to reprint the questions on my own blog.

Q: Okay, first off, what's it really like to be an Excel Ninja?

A: I am not sure I'm a ninja, but... Mostly, it's fun being able to make a tool do whatever you want. Anybody who's been a computer programmer or even who's done a do-it-yourself project at home knows that feeling of satisfaction that comes from finally making something just work. Of course, it's a little less fun if you're the person everyone is asking to help troubleshoot their problem with a spreadsheet.

Q: What do you do with Excel - work and/or play?

A: These days it's a mix of both. Work is the usual analysis, comparisons, reporting, or list management stuff that people tend to do with spreadsheets. A lot more fun is the crazy ways that both my wife and I, as well as a lot of our friends, find for using these "serious" tools.

Q: When did you get hooked on the possibilities?

A: I think I was very young, maybe 7 or 8, when I was first helping my father with some spreadsheets he was working on. This was on a Commodore 64, and I was just so excited about the fact that I could take the simple math skills that I had and turn them into something so limitless. That's probably still the reason it's fun to me.

Then, when I got a little older, I read about the people who'd invented the first spreadsheet programs, and how they'd also invented a lot of the ideas behind the computer software industry as a whole. Without them as pioneers, I couldn't have the job I have today, and I'm extremely fortunate to get to have met a lot of these people, who are still alive, still working actively in creating new software, and still mentoring geeks like me who grew up using their work. (Dan Bricklin, who invented the spreadsheet, has been active in blogging and podcasting from the beginning. And Ray Ozzie, who helped popularize spreadsheets with Lotus 1-2-3 just replaced Bill Gates as Chief Software Architect of Microsoft.)

Q: The web link you sent [referring to Excel Pile] is two years old. Of course I'm late in reporting on all this - but do you sense a mainstreaming of Excel lifestyle uses outside the computer programmer/engineer crowd? I have friends who plot wardrobes, wedding and rsvp lists all the time. I feel like I haven't heard that so much....

A: I think there are lots of people who use these tools to plan their important events, or even for recreation. They're so powerful and so adaptable, and people are familiar with them from their day jobs; It's only natural they'd take them home to use them there as well.

Q: Why Excel? Why is it such a lovable program?

A: I think there's a lot of reasons people use Excel in unexpected ways. The first is that we're wrongly taught that software is "serious" and should only be used for practical purposes. Technology is just as creative a medium as any other, and people have an inherent desire to express themselves. My sister's made art with Excel by coloring in the cells. She's self-conscious about it because it seems kind of silly, but I think you could definitely take it seriously. So there's a subversive element to using a business tool that way.

There's also the immense degree of personalization and customization that this kind of office software lets you do. You can really make it your own space, just like you do with your physical space in an office. Nothing says potential like a blank white sheet, and that's why Excel is compelling. Nobody thinks it's strange that graph paper makes you want to doodle; This is a digital representation of the same urge.

Q: You're down on Power Point? Why?

A: I wouldn't say I'm down on PowerPoint. I'd say that historically, it's made it very easy for people to make their communications worse. The tool focused on making all kinds of presentational tricks possible, without focusing on whether those effects were meaningful. And the fact that most people aren't designers meant that you ended up with slide shows that were worse than just hearing someone tell their own story in their own voice without needless adornment.

Tools influence content. Blogs encourage people to share with others in a way that gets a conversation going. Spreadsheets encourage people to create an organized, structured space that can make complicated information seem more approachable. PowerPoint has, until very recently, been designed to help people communicate like cave men: in short, grunting sentences accompanied by crude illustrations.

I'm also just picky because I spend a lot of time doing presentations and public speaking and I think it's like any other craft; You get much better at it the more you do it, and most people just don't do it often enough to justify using a tool as fraught with potential failures as PowerPoint. On the other hand, the upcoming version of PowerPoint is so dramatically improved that I think it will actually make meetings less painful all over the world, once people start to upgrade.

Q: What's a beginner to do? I stare at the Excel on my desktop and I don't know where to start.

A: It's a very forgiving medium! There's an undo button that lets you back out of any mistake, and you can save at any point. So first, be fearless. Second, think of all the times that people insisted that you'd never use the math you learned in school -- this is your chance to prove them wrong! And then don't think so much about formulas and mathematical expressions, because that's not what most people use spreadsheets for anyway. Think about lists and tables.

Once you've got a body of information that you want to organize, you can start to think about formatting and automation. You color the borders and cells and other pieces to look like you want, and then you add little bits of logic to make some magic happen. Whether that's creating a chart or dropping in a few simple formulas, it's pretty easy to use the built-in help and turn a simple to-do list into a color-coded, progress-charting life improvement system.

Q: That said, how do you know when to stop?

A: The new version of Excel supports a million rows. That seems like a decent limit. :)

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