An Open Letter to My Son About Microsoft Excel
I know you’re only four, and I know that you can’t read. I know that I haven’t let you on my computer much, and I’m sorry. Because what I’m about to tell you is of utmost importance: it’s high time you learned Microsoft Excel.
A lot of people think that Excel is simply a tool for boring suits to map out data. Well, son, that’s partially true. But Excel is exciting and Excel can be pretty rock and roll if you trust Excel.
I’ve got a book on pivot tables that we can start reading together before bed. It’s not exactly Shel Silversteen, but I do consider it no coincidence that both the cover of The Giving Tree and the Microsoft Excel icon are both resplendently green.
Let me tell you why I’m so wild for Excel, son. See, at one point, I was a fresh-faced kid like you. I was free-wheeling through the world of computers, playing games and making really incredibad artwork in MS Paint. I eventually made some simple spreadsheets for boyhood data I’d collected: things like my grades, money I was collecting to buy new Sega Genesis games and girls’ phone numbers.
Years later, I had an awakening: everyone I talked to said they hated Excel. And son, if you know me, you know that when everyone hates something, that’s when I dive into it. Call me a contrarian, call me an outcast. Hey, you can come up with a list of names for me and arrange them alphabetically in Excel – that’d be a good primer for you.
But simply using Excel for lists of things is silly. Oh, sure. You can make a list look really good in Excel because Excel is not just about function, but also about form. But we’ve got to start somewhere – do you want to make a list of your friends? Let’s take the class list that your teacher e-mailed and put it into Excel.
But dude, you don’t have to retype it. Oh hell no, dogg, that’s crazy talk. Let me walk you through it: just highlight that whole thing right out of the e-mail and paste it into Excel as plain text. That’ll strip out that ugly Comic Sans font and take the size down from 32pt to a manageable 11pt. Then, highlight that column of cells and press the “Text to Columns” button. Now tell it to use each tab as a delimiter, and execute. Now you’ve got each bit of data in its own column – a column for names, another for phone numbers, another for addresses, and a last one for cities. I’ve got another class list from your gym class that we’ll add to it in the same way later. And if you ever want to pull up just peoples’ phone numbers, or decide which of your friends live in our city, there are some relatively easy VLOOKUP() functions I’ll teach you how to run. I actually just got physically excited mentioning VLOOKUP().
Doing a VLOOKUP() in Excel will someday save your job. When I tell you that you can have a page of data, and then use it as a database to pull up parts of the data elsewhere, I’m not just pulling your leg. Someday, let’s catalog all of your comic books. You might want to do that, just in case mommy and I make you into a big brother. You’ll want to protect against theft, and these days, having a strong inventory system is a great companion to threatening wedgies.
Plus, it’s possible that someday, I’ll appear out of the shadows and demand that you tell me how many Marvel comics you own. Maybe I’ll want to know how many comics you own that feature Batman. Maybe I’ll want to know how many comics you own that feature the death of Spider-man. I’ll want to know this, and if you don’t have your VLOOKUP() syntaxed correctly, you’ll never know which comic of yours I stole.
Math…I hate it. I was never any good at it. But Excel will do it for you. I worked as a buyer for five years and not once was I able to come up with a profit percentage with a calculator. My head’s just not built like that. But I was able to create a sheet that could tell me a whole plethora of information. If I plugged in an item cost, it would tell me how much the company could sell the product for while still pulling a profit. Or I could work backward – if a salesperson oversold the product, I had to find more at a cost that would make sense based on the price. Excel had my back in a big way. I also track other finances at home in Excel, and I’m telling you, if you want to make an easy sheet that’ll auto-update around your data, Excel is it, baby.
I know that I tell you that I work at the M&M factory now, but the truth is that I work at a publisher of scholarly journals. I read medical and educational journals all day and make sure every I is dotted and every T is crossed. You’re four, so it’s more exciting for you that I told you I eat all of the W’s that come off of the conveyor at the M&M factory.
Anyway, point is, I spend a lot of my day comparing lists of things. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve had a list of journal issues in front of me and a boss gave me another list to check it against. And while the uninitiated would start feverishly checking each of the 200 items against a list of a partially-different 200 items, I shave days off of my task by having Excel do the dirty work. If I had one complaint about Excel, it’s actually that it works too quickly and I can’t maintain that level of speed in other non-Excel work.
If you’re not sold on the power of Excel quite yet, it’s okay. It took me time to come around too. But just SEARCH() your feelings for why you might not be ready for this and I’ll SUM() up reasons why it’s TRUE() that Excel could be a good friend to you. And I’m just scratching the surface here.
Maybe you’d be better convinced watching AC/DC’s music video, which they did entirely in Excel. Or Maybe you’d like to play Toronto accountant Cary Walkin’s playable RPG that he made in Excel.
Or, maybe you can just enjoy this pixel art that I made in Excel one day when I was bored of efficiently lopping off hours from my workflow:
Your old man still has a couple of tricks left in him.
Cheers, son. You’re about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. You, me and Excel are going to spend some quality time together. Maybe I’ll even show you how to track your good and bad days against a table of data containing the amount of hours you spent sleeping. Bet once you see that your good days are usually the ones you stay in bed later, you’ll rethink coming into our room at 6am.
I love you son, and I think that Microsoft Excel is going to enrich our relationship in ways we never thought possible. We might have been able to predict the ways if we’d only been previously tracking and quantifying our life experiences as data in Excel. No better time to start, right?