A Nightmare on Excel Street

nightmare_summary


Introduction

This is a true story that spans decades of time but focuses on events that occurred during one recent college semester. I don’t really have time to write all aspects of the story, so I have decided to keep it short.

Background

When I was a little boy about 5 years old, one night I had a high fever. I had a very restless night as I tossed and turned as I was sweating profusely due to the fever. I also vividly remember (almost 50 years later!) that I had to keep an eye on something in my room. There was a very scary character that spent most of the night staring at me from the foot of my bed, which terrified me.

In this fever-induced, delirious state, this imaginary character had emerged from a movie called the “West Side Story”, which happened to be playing that weekend on TV. I never watched the movie but had seen a lot of commercials prior to it being aired. Somehow this scary character ended up in my bedroom and caused me to be panicked all night long as I suffered through that fever.

In reality, the character was probably just shadows that were cast into my room. Light from the kitchen sneaked through the bedroom door that was left slightly open so that my Mom could check on me from time to time. Even as I now realize this, I still wish I didn’t have to remember that night all these years later. That character still gives me the creeps.

Fast Forward To My College Years

I’ve never been much of a fan of scary movies. I don’t really see the point of watching them. I think I’m just wired in such a way to live happily and to not live in fear.

I remember in 1984 when the movie “A Nightmare on Elm Street” hit the theaters. I was reminded of my West Side Story scary character from my childhood bedroom when I first saw the images of that character named “Freddie Kreuger”. They resembled each other because they wore a similar shaped hat.

I didn’t see that movie either, but for whatever reason, the movie name just stuck in my brain. Well, the other day my brain got a little confused during a dream and here is how the movie title “A Nightmare on Excel Street” was created.

A Nightmare on Excel Street

I have a 21-year-old son that is taking a business analytics class. Every once in a while, he asks me for some help or to review his major projects because he wants to make sure that he is doing things right.

Almost all of the work he is assigned has to be done in Excel. There are pivot charts, pivot tables, conditional formats, sparklines, indicator icons, advanced filters, and a whole slew of other Excel features. There are several features that have emerged in the past 10 years since I stopped using Excel to do quantitative and visual analytics.

It doesn’t matter that I have written many thousands of lines of VBA code in Excel or that I have shared insights with some of the best Microsoft Excel gurus like John Peltier. By helping my son, I have been reminded how deep and powerful Excel can be, but also how encumbered I can become when trying to get things done in Excel. I have very little patience for the extra work that Excel forces us to do to get simple things done.

As far as the college assignments go, there are countless pages of rules and regulations that have to be followed to receive all the points on these projects. The instructions are insufferable because the details are endless and wordy. I find myself being thankful that I’m not having to do the work, while wishing that I could show the professors how much easier the work could be done in Alteryx and Tableau!

In doing this work, I have also remembered that you have to set a lot of configurations to get many things done in Excel. Many topics are done in a forward sense, without having a dynamic nature that you get in Tableau. In other words, you have to pre-select a range of cells before you execute what you want to do, like creating a two-variable data table.

When I begin doing analytics like this, a funny thing happens. I start to get very uncomfortable. I get antsy. I almost feel like I’m being forced to watch a horror movie…

The Frustration Grows Fast

When the frustration rises to a boiling point, I almost feel like I can no longer help my son. I know this is the case when I blurt out something like this little diddly: “This is a waste of time! This is not how things are done in the modern business era! There are much easier ways of doing this!” Sometimes I just have to walk away to blow off a little steam.

After I finish my little hissy-fit, we get back to work. I will usually whip out Tableau, solve the problem in seconds, and then spend the next half an hour trying to figure out how to do it in Excel.

As I am doing that, I remember that I had to do these things the hard way for a long time in Excel before I had Alteryx and Tableau. This helps me realize how spoiled I have become in this career and how I need to keep my cool to help my son learn the fundamentals.

The Nightmarish Working Session(s)

Well, the other day, we had a working session like this. In fact, we had several working sessions like this.

In one session, we had the great privilege of creating a local Excel workbook, followed by the inexplicable experience of trying to migrate that information up to an “on-line” version of Excel. If you haven’t ever had that gleeful experience, you haven’t lived! The “on-line” version of Excel does not have all the capabilities that you have grown to love in your desktop version of Excel. It isn’t exactly clear how to move your information up to the “on-line” version of Excel.

A week or so later, we had another working session that took a couple of hours to complete. When finished, Excel reported that that file could not be saved! Effectively, all of his work could not be saved into any file because of internal Excel errors. Luckily I have few tricks in my toolbox and I was able to help him save his project without the need to re-do the work.

Nosave

By now, I know what you are thinking. You are wondering: “What is the point of this story?”  Now I’m going to tell you.

The Point of This Ridiculous Story

After that series of working sessions, I realized something about using Excel. I use Excel every day for all kinds of computational operations because I know it is magnificently powerful. However, when it comes to creating visuals in Excel, I can hardly stand the process and I rebel against the output.

About 20 to 30 years ago, Excel was one of the best tools I had for scientific charting and graphing, and I used it extensively for a couple of decades. Now I cannot stand to use it in that way. I think this is one of the reasons that Power BI isn’t appealing and satisfying to me because it is too closely related to Excel. It isn’t hard to see how the Excel lineage has been carried forward to Power BI. For a great explanation of that, read this article.

A couple of nights ago, after the first working session with my son on his project, I had a restless night of sleep. I tossed and turned, I couldn’t solve the problems, and in my dream, I was being forced to watch a movie called “A Nightmare on Excel Street.” Somehow my brain turned my frustration of using Excel into a movie with that title which was based on the childhood experience outlined above.

Epilog and Final Thoughts

I wrote this article a while ago and decided not to publish it. I didn’t want to sound like a whiney baby about this topic. The reality of this situation hit me hard a couple more times during the semester, however, and I finally decided to publish this story.

I realize that everyone needs to start their business intelligence training somewhere and that the Microsoft platform is a great place for this to happen. I owe many of my skills to that platform because I did it the hard way for years, which allows me truly appreciate outstanding tools like Alteryx and Tableau.

However, when you are a teacher of more capable and easier to use tools such as Alterxy and Tableau, going backward in tool capability and ease-of-use will drive you crazy. It is very clear to me how much improvement has been made in the engineering of analytics software over the past 30 years.

I can’t wait to teach my son how much easier things can get done in Alteryx and Tableau. I think I might be able to persuade him to continue his analytics studies by showing him the truth of Alteryx & Tableau. If he only had Excel to use, I suspect that he would not be too eager to continue doing analytics due to the tedium of the Excel platform, although he has been impressed with the overall capabilities of Excel.

Thanks for reading…

One thought on “A Nightmare on Excel Street

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. I told someone still in Excel-world, that “I have seen the future and it is glorious.” In addition to your points, the visual data-flow nature of an Alteryx like tool (I use KNIME) and the visual nature of Tableau make updating and taking over of other people’s work fairly easy. That’s hard to say about Excel when someone shoves 10 calculations into one cell’s formula bar. I’d much rather inherit an Alteryx / Tableau project than an Excel / VBA workbook.

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