Monday, January 16, 2012

An Interview with Bill Jelen, Mr. Excel

Welcome to our first interview feature of 2012! Bill Jelen is known as Mr. Excel, a Microsoft Excel MVP, and the founder of, in my opinion, the best online source to answer your Excel spreadsheet questions - the MrExcel website. Bill is also an author of many fabulous Excel books such as Microsoft Excel 2010 In Depth. I’d like to thank Bill for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions.

Nick: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? When did you become known as Mr. Excel?

Bill: From 1986 - 2000, I worked in the accounting, finance, and operations departments of an electronics company. I was the guy who knew how to get data out of the mainframe, through a fourth generation reporting tool and into Excel quickly. Whenever anyone at the company had an Excel issue, they would come to me for a solution. I began writing Excel macros to automate the common report requests. People kept telling me that I should write a book about Excel. I would look for good ideas to put in the book from my co-workers, but they frankly weren't generating enough questions.

Nick: What made you ultimately decide to launch the MrExcel website and forum?

Bill: I realized that if I launched a website and asked people to send me their Excel questions, I would get the material for a book much more quickly. It was back in 1998 that I registered MrExcel.com. It took a few days for people to find the site. I would post a new article each week, which kept the content fresh and kept me higher in the search engines (back then, I was thrilled to be in the top 10 when you searched for Excel at the Excite.com search engine.

Nick: Could you describe Microsoft’s MVP award and how you earned such a prestigious title?

Bill: Microsoft names community members who provide a lot of free public help as a Most Valuable Professional. Originally, the award criteria required you to post via the newsgroups on Microsoft's site. Later, they opened the award up to people who post at other sites, such as ExpertsExchange, UtterAccess, MrExcel and more. I produce about 250 Excel podcasts each year, plus write articles for Strategic Finance and for CFO.com. I am never quite sure what it is that qualifies me for renewal of the MVP award, but I will assume it is the free articles and podcasts that I produce.

Last year, another Excel MVP wrote that he didn't see any benefit to the MVP award and "retired" from the MVP program. I could not disagree more.  Once a year, the MVP's have the opportunity to travel to Redmond Washington for the MVP Summit. During that time, you get about two solid days with the project managers who actually decide the future direction of Excel and Office. Now, I can not discuss anything specific that I learn there, but I appreciate the chance to provide feedback on new features and to understand what it coming in the next release of Excel. As an example, I saw an early demo for PowerPivot and realized it would be the greatest thing to hit Excel in 20 years. Consequently, my books for Excel 2010 all feature content on PowerPivot. I even convinced QUE to let me write an entire book explaining PowerPivot to the people who spend their work lives in Excel.

Even between the MVP Summits, you have direct access to Microsoft people who you meet at the Summit. How many people have been using Excel and thought to themselves, "It would be better if Excel could do _____". When I have those ideas, I can get them to the people who can actually get them into Excel. Some of my ideas make it. Some do not. But at least I know that I can get the ideas to the people who can evaluate and decide if the idea is feasible.

Nick: Wow, that sounds pretty cool! I’ve seen Excel used as a 3D graphics engine before. In your experience, what other interesting or unique uses for Excel have you come across?

Bill: It always amazes me to see people use Excel for photos or graphics. I did a small project once for a lady in Kentucky who would design hand-made quilts in Excel. The gridpaper aspect of the spreadsheet allowed her to tile small quilt snippets together when planning a quilt.

Another client has a folder with 2000 item pictures on each computer. The report in Excel does some serious number crunching, finds the products that are generally selling well in a particular region, but that are not in stock at a given store. As the sales rep is meeting with the buyer for the store, the Excel worksheet will display pictures of the regional top 10 selling styles that the buyer should continue adding to the store's inventory. The first 80% of the process is all standard number-crunching in Excel. Taking the results and adding pictures on the fly creates a targeted sales tool for each boutique.
Nick: That's very fascinating and just goes to show the power and versatility of Microsoft Excel! Thank again Bill for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. To learn more about Bill visit his website or check out one of his books (of which I've listed a few below):