Excel Game Changers

You can learn a lot from an expert, but a game changer challenges your believes and assumptions and, at some point, that’s exactly what you need to move forward. Creative destruction. I love it.

Let me tell you about three of my personal Excel game changers.

Jon Peltier

Well, I don’t have to tell you about Jon, everyone knows him. He’s the Excel charts expert. If a chart can’t be made in Excel he’ll find a way to make it. And I think he loves a good challenge (I suspect he can’t even sleep before he finds the right solution).

Years ago, I was starting to feel uncomfortable with the available Excel charts and with data visualization in general. So, I started searching and found, more or less at the same time, both Edward Tufte and Jon’s website. What more could I ask for? Back then, I wasn’t even remotely aware that you can use combination charts and dummy series to extend the Excel charts library well beyond its limited options. It was an eye-opener for sure.

Jon is a chef that knows that each ingredient, even the plainest one, has a secret that deserves to be revealed. Today I understand the basic principles and try to apply them (“geo-scatterplot“, the “consultant’s chart“, the “pie on steroids” and even the thematic map) but they are clumsy attempts, compared to what Jon is able to do.

Here’s a simple example. In my “pie-on-steroids” chart, I wanted to remove the hole but I was unable to. At some point I got stuck. In this post, Jon kindly removes the roadblock and tells us simple mortals how to do it the right way. If you don’t want to be bothered with details, Jon has some chart utilities that simplify the process of making charts not available in the Excel chart library.

Daniel Ferry

For the casual reader, some of the posts in the Excel Hero blog may seem nothing more than ball juggling, fascinating but useless for “serious” work. And that’s probably right, if you just want a quick Excel tip. Daniel approaches Excel from a more abstract perspective, and that means that he has a deeper understanding of concepts and relationships that ultimately leads to more sophisticated and practical solutions. A chess game viewer may not be what you need to solve a problem now, but try to figure out how it works and you’ll start approaching your projects from a different perspective too. Do you want something with real impact now? Start avoiding the IF() function.

Daniel opened recently the doors of his Excel Hero Academy and module one was fantastic. He keeps switching between the conceptual and the practical levels and not only that makes a very engaging presentation but you also feel that you’ll leave the course with a muche stronger framework to approach any project in Excel. Highly recomendable for intermediate to advanced users.

Andreas Lippheardt

[Update: unfortunately, Andreas has passed away in 2012 and Bonavista is no longer in business. I will leave this text as a small tribute to his work]  I believe that users can solve their own problems with the right tools, the right rules and the right knowledge. Given them that, make sure the IT sticks to a basic infrastructure management and you’ll get a much more knowledgeable organization. Now, start from there, add Excel, add data visualization best practices and you get Andreas.

Andreas has strong views regarding the role of IT and much of his work is devoted to empowering users. He’s the owner of Bonavista Systems, maker of MicroCharts, probably the best implementation of Tufte’s sparklines in Excel. He also teamed up with Stephen Few to create the Chart Tamer, an add-in that simpliflies tha process of selecting the right chart and provides much better formatting defaults. The company is lunching two new tools, the Bonavista Dimensions that you can use to create powerful interactive dashboards (again, using data visualization best practices) and the Bonavista Web, to publish Excel dashboards and reports online. I will discuss these tools soon.

Who Are Your Excel Game Changers?

Fernando Pessoa, a well-known Portuguese poet, wrote a funny short story about “The Anarchist Banker”. To be an anarchist you have to be free from what Pessoa calls “social fictions”, like money. That’s why only a banker, who has so much money that doesn’t have to think about it, can be the true anarchist. Apparently, many bankers are reading Fernando Pessoa nowadays.

Like an anarchist banker, I want to be free from the tools and focus on the end result. If you are not delegating (I like to build things), your only option is to really master the tool. Again, it’s not only about how much you know. It’s about how  you connect the pieces and make them work together. That’s were Jon, Daniel and Andreas help me think about Excel and make me forget Excel…

What about you? Who would you add to the list? Who changed the way you think and work with Excel? Please share it in the comments below.

11 thoughts on “Excel Game Changers

  1. Jorge,
    I met my Excel Game Changer in March 2009. His name is Holger Gerths and he showed me lots of fascinating tricks how to cheat the excel charting engine. Holger is the Excel-mastermind behind the business-charts of Rolf Hichert, you mentioned in one of your earlier posts. His business-charts are incredible: without any vba, only using line-diagramms. Have a look at http://www.hichert.com/de/software/schaubilder/65. Your find an excel example here: http://www.hichert.com/downloads/software/M_02_v_DEMO_V1.6.8_hge_2010-04-15_rh.zip

    the best, Lars

  2. Lars, thanks for sharing. Well, behind every great man there’s a great Excel power user…

    Hey, is your company creating Xcelsius addons to implement Hichert’s rules? That’s like trying to prevent the scorpion from killing the frog (changing the nature of the beast)… But it’s interesting. You must tell us more about it.

  3. Oh, you know Xcelsius!
    Ok, we already “prevent the scorpion from killing the frog” – very nice metaphor 🙂 … Yes, our Addons implement the “Hichert rules” in Xcelsius!
    But check it out: You get Xcelsius Present for free at http://bit.ly/cF2TFg and we offer a free version of our addon at http://bit.ly/d6s26y
    Our addon and manual are available only in german at the moment, but you can use it very intuitive. Give us some time and there will be an english version also.
    Hope it works for you, Lars

  4. PS: Passei un ano estudando em Lisboa em 1994, mas nunca estive en Oeiras.
    Neste altura eu nao tenho nenhuma opportunidade para falar portugues e estou a esquecer os meus conhecimentos da lingua portuguesa – e um pena … tenho duas filhas tamben – 3 e 6 anos – e uma mulher, que esta a trabalhar demasiado. Acho, que a nosso forma da vida deve ser similario .. 🙂
    Lars

  5. The three you named certainly belong to the group – Jon’s site a veritable gold mine – Andreas writings are wonderful too – and Microcharts a wonderful product. A name not mentioned above is Chandoo [ pointy haired dilbert] – he makes it all accessible – for a huge number of guys out there – the first steps and the innovative solutions he provides are invaluable.

    At a conceptual level I have recently enjoyed reading Nicholas Bissantz – me, myself and BI and Rolf Hichert .

  6. Well I’ve been in excel(Lotus 123 anyone?) for too long and just when i started to think I’ve mastered all the tricks, Mike Alexander show me that there still another bacon out there.

  7. Jorge,

    I met my Excel Game changer in the year 2008, his name is Sameer Bhide – Passionate to Excel & VBA.  He is the motivation for me to learn more and dig  excel tool. His work is amazing.

  8. Two names; same underlying financial modeling techniques. John Richter (fi-mech.com) and Kenny Whitelaw-Jones (F1F9.com). I first learned about FAST Modeling (FAST = Flexible ; Appropriate ; Structured ; Transparent) from John. Kenny’s firm has subsequently become the more public face of FAST, and instrumental in elevating FAST to an internationally recognized standard (fast-standard.org). Adopting their philosophies and techniques for building financial models — their work is not about VBA, automation, advanced formulas or charts — improved my excel skills and my work products exponentially.

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