Go beyond basic Excel and learn from the MVPs

Dive under the surface of Excel and become a more efficient and faster user.

Most people just scratch the surface with Excel, but by learning one or two new tools they could make it a faster and more versatile time-saver.

By Lachlan Colquhoun

Ingeborg Hawighorst lives beside the snow-capped slopes of Mount Taranaki in New Zealand, and from there she dispenses advice to Excel users around the world.

Through her blog and website and in online forums, Hawighorst’s mission is to help people use Excel more effectively, to solve their problems and ultimately improve their business.

So helpful was she in assisting one Excel user from North Carolina in the US that he sought her out on a recent visit to New Zealand.

“I answered his questions about charting over the course of several months,” she says.

“Then when he came to New Zealand he insisted on taking myself and my family out to dinner as a way of saying thank you, so that was a really nice touch.”

These, she says, are moments that spur her to keep engaging with Excel users globally. She says she lives “off the beaten track” and so welcomes any opportunity to meet the people she interacts with online.

Microsoft has recognised Hawighorst’s work with its Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award, which was the culmination of a journey that began in online forums several years ago.

Excel’s vast capabilities in data visualisation and charting

Hawighorst’s interest is in data visualisation and charting, and as her expertise grew she joined forums to ask questions and tap others’ knowledge. 

After a while Hawighorst found she was answering questions as well as asking them. She began seeking out others and their questions, and solving their problems. This evolved into her blog, and now her status as a MVP.

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Most people only “scratch the surface” with Excel, she says. Its upgraded capabilities are “vast”, while the “backwards capability” which dates from the inception of the program two decades ago gives it continuity and a historic functionality which ensures old data is still usable.

“Its strength is that it can be so many different things to so many different people,” she says.

“Once you learn about the more sophisticated features you really can be so much more efficient and faster.”

Go beyond the basics with Excel

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Ken Puls does much the same thing from his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

After a 15-year corporate career, Puls now operates his own business, Excelguru Consulting, and has a similar passion to Hawighorst in his drive to help others gain all they can from the program.

“My company is all about teaching people to do things better with Excel and make their lives easier,” he says.

Puls’ view of Excel is that although it is the top “tool in the toolbox” for accountants, no one is ultimately employed as what he calls an “Excel jockey”.

This means that most people do not progress beyond a very rudimentary understanding of its functions, and only touch on what is possible.

“The way people learn about Excel is that they talk to the guy in the cubicle next to them at work, and they might know something and they pass on a trick,” says Puls.

“Once we have to get a job done with all the pressure of a deadline from the boss, we end up doing the same thing over and over again and stop looking for new methods. If you haven’t spent time studying Excel, you don’t know what it can do and how it might help you.”

Excel, he says, is unique in that it is “just so big”. Although it has powerful capabilities which are useful to professions from accountants to engineers and doctors, the barrier to entry is low and it delivers major efficiencies which can help small businesses become bigger.

Learn Power Query and change your life

Puls’ specialty is Power Query, the new function that enhances data discovery and combining new data from other sources. Now, he has written a book on Power Query, M is for (Data) Monkey: A Guide to the M Language in Excel Power Query, co-written with Miguel Escobar.

“I am loving Power Query right now,” he says.

“It allows you to collect and clean your data, and it saves it so it is automated for next time.

“If you want impact and want to change your life, you need to learn Power Query, because it is the number one technique people should be learning right now.”

Read next: Unlocking Excel: using Excel to influence others in your organisation


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