Tools of the trade…

For someone who works in finance & commercial, Microsoft’s Excel & PPT are the glue that hold most organisations together. Forget the multi-million dollar BI implementation approved, ironically, by the CFO, when some analysis is required, its ‘open an Excel spreadsheet’ time every single day.

This week I found myself talking to a grad in my team about the tools worth getting familiar with, & I shared with her how my thinking has evolved over the last two decades:

Stage 0:
What’s this Excel thing? And who on earth needs a million rows & 256 columns?

Stage  1:
Wow, I can get some pretty decently presented tax computation worksheets. The IF statement, especially those 6 nested conditions cover nearly all my likely needs.

Stage 1.1:
Why didn’t someone tell me I could use VLOOKUP  instead of those nested conditional statements?

Stage 1.2 to 2:
There’s so many more formulas? And you can combine them?

Stage 3-7:
Whoa!! Alt  + Ctrl + Shift + number keys + arrow keys + Page Up/Down keys can move me around the worksheet/ workbook faster than moving my hand to the mouse & then clicking!
Ok, time to learn to touch type because I can do things at x times the speed of mouse clicks.
Formulas, referential indexing, Data Analysis add-in.. holy f**8!!!! Pivot Tables, External Data, connecting to databases, MSSQL, formula auditing, charting……  there’s more stuff here that will make my reporting life easier than ever..

Stage 8:
What’s this ‘macro’ thing? It’s totally pointless, does all sort of nonsense when I record something & then push play..

Stage 9:
I can take someone else’s macro & copy it & then change it to suit my needs? I can integrate it with OLE & ODBC & SAP & Hyperion & other VBA reference libraries to automate some of my daily tasks? What am I going to do with all this spare time?

Fast forward several versions of Office release later, & all the power I need for my day job at my finger tip memory (PowerPivot, PowerQuery, PowerBI),  – there’s no need to learn anything else… & well, Tableau came along that made visual analytics easy as point & click (grrrr, no finger memory possible, but I think that is deliberate to make you think while you click around dimensions & measures)

So if you’re starting out in your career, it’s probably best to get really good at three things with your tools:

1. Touch Typing (there’s probably reams written on why this is important). Keyboard shortcuts in Excel will save your a$$ at midnight when all you want to do is shut the damn thing off instead of reaching for the mouse once again. My experience is that you will not even be working at midnight once finger memory takes over.

2. Navigation shortcuts using keyboard.  Get as familiar as possible with:

  • Windows application keyboard shortcuts (that Win key + numbers can fire up the application you need)
  • Excel keyboard shortcuts (and don’t bother memorising these – watch the screen light up when you hit the Alt key). 
  • Any other application – before you start playing with the application, read through the help file for keyboard shortcuts  (yes, even Tableau has a few!)
3. Get at least a basic understanding of how code works. You don’t need to be a coder or programmer (you hate it so much & it also explains why you’d rather be an accountant :)) – but knowing how the thing you work on works (it is software after all!) will give you a few ideas when you’re struggling to do something that seems nearly impossible (which will happen soon enough, anyway)
As the creator of D3.JS Mike Bostock says: “Code is the most general tool we have”

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