CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
Top International Expert in Excel and Noted Author
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, ISP, has an exclusive interview with the highly respected, international expert and author, Patrick Blattner.
Patrick has authored a number of books and articles on Excel including “Special Edition Using Microsoft Excel 2003”, “Special Edition Using Microsoft Excel 2002”, “Special Edition Using Microsoft Excel 2000”, “Microsoft Excel 2000 Functions in Practice”. His work has also appeared in PC Computing Magazine and on Tech TV’s live call-in “Call for Help.”
Patrick is a member of The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and he has spent several years with Disney Interactive in media development. Currently, Blattner is working within the AOL product group.
Q: Patrick, we appreciate the time you are taking to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your views with the audience.
A: My pleasure.
Q: Please describe your work with Disney: how did you obtain your job, which attributes were the most useful in obtaining employment, what skill sets did you develop, challenges you faced, depict the Disney environment, and explain the nature of your work?
A: Disney was a great experience. I initially started out as an analyst working with a core strategic business group to develop models to handle animation production. The group was tasked with setting up production worldwide to produce animation for corresponding pc and console games that would be delivered day and date with feature film releases.
There were multiple challenges placed on our team. First, we had to qualify production houses to meet the quality and standards of Disney animation. Second, the production studios had to be able to produce large-scale animation productions within short time frames. Third, these studios had to work with the individual teams and accurately report production status to the core strategic group. Last, we had to develop a dynamic resource model that would schedule animation within the appropriate animation studio based on capacity at any given time.
This is where Excel came in. There was no such modeling tool available that would allow for the 16 variables used to schedule animation production based on a scheduled release date, studio capacity, and weekly delivered output. That said I built a dynamic resource model in Excel to manage the animation - Kind of a MS Project on steroids.
Q: How about your current work at AOL?
A: AOL has also been a great experience because of the challenges placed on us to define an emerging market. With the most recent release of 9.0 I was responsible for developing a product called SuperBuddytm Icons. SuperBuddytm Icons are animated feature quality 3D characters that come to life and enhance your personality while instant messaging. This is the first time 3D animated characters have been seamlessly integrated into instant messaging and the initial feedback indicates we have a hit. Commercials across all the networks and cable started airing for Superbuddies in early October 03.
Q: You have spent considerable time becoming a recognized expert in Excel. Why Excel?
A: Excel is by far the most flexible program of its kind on the market. Over time, it’s just been the program of choice for managing information, solving problems, and visually displaying the results in one package.
Q: Describe the evolution of Excel from 2000 to 2003. What new features were added? Why would businesses want to upgrade to 2003?
A: The evolution from 2000 to 2003 is more suited for the IT and development community as oppose to the average Excel user. With the integration of shared services and XML support, the development community will be able to create integrated custom applications that will enhance a collaborative community of users that share an application. The other features or enhancements have been little snippets here and there. For example, smart tags. However, they are not that smart and have proven to annoy users. Hmmm. Sounds similar to another snafu like “most recently used commands” in menus.
Q: Which features do you like best in 2003?
A: Very similar to my previous answer. 2003 features will most likely appeal to the development community such as the integration of XML support and the advanced integration of shared workspaces. However, shared workspaces require Windows Server 2003. While these features may appeal to the development community, this will not satisfy the average Excel user. Chances are most users will not see the fruition of these services within their company. I personally have been under whelmed by the lack of enhancements to proven features that users find important in their everyday lives.
My views are less about IT development tools and more about giving the consumer more power to control their information without costly upgrades and hardware dependencies. The lack of attention to fix existing and known problems or beef up frequently used features baffles me.
Q: Tell us more about those special capabilities that give Excel its power but are often overlooked or rarely used.
A: The feature that is most useful and most misunderstood is PivotTables. PivotTable development with the PivotTable toolbar has made this functionality more digestible for the average consumer. I call out Pivot Tables because the average user struggles with managing information on a daily basis. By learning how to structure information, PivotTables can automatically manage the information without introducing functions or formulas.
The other feature has to be functions. When combined with formulas it can work magic for developing models and managing data. Although many use the simple functions such as sum and average, very few understand the shear power of functions and how they can manage and save countless hours of time. Even more - the power of combining functions to create formulas can help extract and or solve the most difficult of problems.
Q: Share a few real-world problems that can be easily solved with Excel.
A: There’s one common problem that spans across multiple business units. That is, automated visual timelines for use in marketing, production, or finance. Not only visual, these timelines can manage information dynamically. One of the most common problems I see in the corporate world is a difficulty in visually displaying information over time and setting up an automated model to handle the everyday inputs. I cover about 8-10 different scenarios in my book that show the spreadsheet layout and the functions and formulas that will automate the timelines.
Q: From a development standpoint, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Excel 2003?
A: Strengths of Excel 2003; Power users and IT departments can further customize Excel using XML and InfoPath. This allows users and developers to build structured templates based on XML. Ultimately providing a more in-depth development environment and hopefully will make it easier for companies to collect and share data.
However, I’m extremely disappointed with the lack of advanced features within the core functionality of Excel that most people use. If MS would have provided advanced visual and functional capabilities within Excel’s charting tool this alone would have satisfied a majority of the users. Instead, they’ve focused on features that require additional hardware and or features that less than 2% of the market will ever use such as the ability to program task panes with XML support. Furthermore, they enhanced a feature that is annoying at best. – Smart Tags.
Q: What other books and articles are you planning? Any topics outside of Excel?
A: I’ve been approached to write a book on charting and am still evaluating whether I’ll have the time over the next several months to give it the amount of time it deserves. This would include Excel but also include more theory behind charting techniques, the use of color, and skewing information to fit an audience.
Q: What’s unique about your most recent book?
A: If you look at my 2000 book compared to my 2003 book you’ll notice a great amount of refinement that focuses more on theory and why you would create a certain presentation or manage information a certain way with real world analytical examples. You’ll also notice that the examples provided are more thought out than most other Excel books. In addition, I enhanced the 10+ chapters on formulas and functions. Last, I’ve included more models that will help every day information managers.
Q: Predict the future?
A: The future of application development either on the web or in the MS office suite is no different from other industries in their infancy in the past. Back when the automobile was invented, you could buy different styles of cars to suit your taste. Over time, the landscape became more competitive and the offerings had to speak to the individual consumer. Now when you purchase an automobile you customize just about every component to fit your specific taste. This is now occurring in application development where the landscape has given the consumer choices and the applications need to be customized to fit the individual within different market sectors.
Hopefully within the development of office applications the Microsoft team will understand that they need to develop these applications for the consumer using the applications. Allow the user to customize the experience to fit their usage patterns and make the applications more integrated as oppose to several independent applications. If a user could pick and choose what functions or subsets of each application within the office suite were most important to them and could combine those features to make one custom application for their specific use that would be a home run. And make the customization process consumer friendly without VBA and without the need for a high end IT professional to set it up. They touched on this back in the day of the binder, however, the execution and integration was poor and then they abandoned the product before they understood the potential of the idea.
Q: Can you provide your list of the ten most important issues facing corporations and IT professionals today? How can these issues be resolved?
A: I don’t know about ten but here’s a few key issues facing the corporate IT departments. The lack of budgets to support the necessary upgrades, the additional hardware required to make the applications work in the manner they were designed, and then teaching the employee how to use all components to make the upgrade cost effective. When upgrading to new hardware and software IT departments have to justify the value proposition. Specifically, if you look at the amount of users still on Office 97 this functionality satisfies 80% of the users in the market today. Microsoft is answering this problem by making mandatory upgrades necessary with new operating system software thus force feeding corporations to allocate budgets to upgrade. If I were part of an IT department, I would try to hold off on a major upgrade until Longhorn delivers. Although this could be 4 years out, it’s the only major upgrade in the near future that will justify the cost and deliver the quality.
Q: Which resources do you find the most useful?
A: I can provide four resources that are invaluable. Over time you find yourself going back to resources that are reliable and have updated or refreshed content.
1) From the Excel end, the most active community I’ve found has to be the CompuServe Microsoft Office forum (Excel). Here you can post and answer questions with some of the most active Excel users from around the world. Although I don’t actively participate in this forum I use to go in and review common issues people had with Excel.
2) For information on presenting: Check out: “Presenting to win” the art of telling your story by Jerry Weissman.
3&4) For trend analysis, analytical data, market comparison, or general “how to” visually present information tap into:http://www.forrester.com/home/0,6092,1-0,FF.html http://www.emarketer.com
Q: Share you most interesting and funny stories from your past experiences.
A: I would have to say the most interesting is being in the middle of the rise, fall, and re-emergence of the Internet. Defining the value proposition for Internet access and how content and product plays a key role has to be the most interesting and rewarding because the future of this market still remains and unknown.
During this time, I have been faced with countless challenges however the most exciting was executing on a product that has eluded companies for years - The seamless integration of 3D content on the web within a chat experience that works over dialup and broadband has to be the most significant accomplishment I’ve made to date. Something I call meaningful execution. Give the consumer an enriched experience without requiring the consumer to learn anything new.
More ironic than funny is how I find myself working with key individuals that I use to work with while at Disney and together we are shaping new experiences on the Internet.
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: I enjoy working in competitive and emerging markets. To be able to develop and define products that millions of people touch is rewarding especially when the products get rave reviews.
Q: Do you have any more comments to add?
A: Fortunately, I have been a part of two major corporations that are leaders in their respective markets. The challenges have been unique in both rights however; I still use Excel as the application of choice to solve complex issues and manage information. I then try to bring those scenarios to life in my books.
Q: It was a pleasure interviewing you. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge with our audience.
A: Thanks Stephen, it was a pleasure.