State of the profession

Johan asks:

Do you wan’t Office to be an attractive development platform? If Yes, what do you think is the best way to attract new talents to Excel and Excel automation?

Dick M and others have highlighted the lack of new blood in the Excel development community. I for one would like to see more folks joining in (as long as they don’t drive rates down to .net dev levels ;-).

I see 2 target groups:

  1. Excel users
  2. .net devs

    A few Excel users will always filter through to developer type roles. Better availability of advanced training might help them (I get 2-3 requests per year via codematic for advanced training). Not sure how to encourage this group? any ideas?

    Personally I think many devs have a strong herding instinct, so probably giving away salt licks with Excel would do it. ;-)

    Many devs are pre-occupied with their CV and what will look good on it, that kind of depends on what is going to be big. Not always, but often, what Microsoft commit to gets to be the big new thing. when I say commit I mean real financial commitment not cheap sound bite commitment – no one buys them.

    They bet the company on .net and the internet and devs have flocked to it (moo-ed to it?). Sadly in betting on t’intarweb, they effectively bet against the desktop. That is what we are up against now.

    Microsoft have been pushing (very very lightly (/cheaply)) the Office smart client story for years and years. But they havent put any real money in it so no one really believes them. Look around, there are loads of MS employee Visual Studio evangelists (who are all talking Silverlight at the mo). I do not know of one single Microsoft employed Excel development evangelist in the whole world. Do you?

    The community is strong, but really needs proper support from Microsoft. I tried to get an MS speaker for the Excel User conference, they were not able to provide a member of staff. There were valid reasons, but really it comes down to priorities.

    Not many folks can afford the time or cost to go to San Jose, or want to listen to the Sharepoint noise. Years ago there were quarterly roadshows that toured the country. We need those back, but focused on Office as a smart client. If devs see MS investing real cash in Office as a smart client they will take a look. Maybe they could coordinate a tour with a new enhanced VBAIDE?

    In summary Devs will follow the money, and thats all in web dev currently.

    What do you think?



    13 Responses to “State of the profession”

    1. Rob Bruce Says:

      Transferable skills are key. Once you get locked into MS Office/VBA you soon run out of escape routes. I managed to engineer myself into the .NET stream at its outset because I feared getting sidelined. I’ve returned to Office/COM, but will continue to dabble in .NET in case the office stuff starts to dry up.

      (To go off at a slight tangent, why don’t I do Excel AND .NET? Because interop and distribution in essence prevent me from doing it, as has been discussed here recently.)

      “A few Excel users will always filter through to developer type roles. Better availability of advanced training might help them.”

      I’m not at all sure about training. Once a user gets to the power user stage, s/he will advance without training if s/he has an ‘inner developer’ waiting to be unleashed. A power user that requires advanced training hasn’t got what it takes to be a developer: The most important skill that any developer can have is the ability to research and learn the appropriate thing and learn it fast, and you don’t get that from courses.

    2. Simon Says:

      Excel/VBA is itself an escape route too right? (it was my ticket out of mindless monthly management accounting). I won’t disagree about its possible dead-endedness.

      Excel/.net agreed sadly.

      Training – you are right, what was I thinking??

      maybe mentoring/coaching? how do you find the ‘inner developer’ and nurture it?

    3. Nick Hebb Says:

      I think the major obstacle is lack of jobs. Maybe in London, New York, and other financial hubs there are Excel dev jobs available, but at least where I live (Portland, Oregon) there aren’t many opportunities.

    4. Biggus Dickus Says:


      Of course I agree with everything you say ;-) …….

      “The community is strong, but really needs proper support from Microsoft.”

      The community needs to think that MS cares about them and that at least the Office team gives a s**t about them. That only means reaching out to them and soliciting their opinions and encouraging them to meet each other (I was saddened by people at San Jose who were simply happy to meet another Excel VBA/Access developer.

      MS has to go to them – has to involve their Regional offices somehow so their BPA’s (Business Productivity Analysts) have Traditonal Office dev reach in their objectives.


      “I think the major obstacle is lack of jobs. ”

      I afraid I don’t believe companies think they can justify someone who just does Excel and/or Access so they do not have “Jobs” for people like us. In fact even if you had a job ostensibly in Exce.VBA/Access, it wouldn’t be long before you get dragged into something else (like .NET development).

      That is why I have focused on a Consultancy that is “project-oriented” and involves my working with multiple clients concurrently to get enough business to pay my mortgage. I know that not everyone is cut out for the insecurities of independent consulting (I sometimes wonder if I am) but until this field gets more traction that is the only way I can see this “job” working out as a full-time thing. Frankly having multiple clients makes me feel more secure than if I had a “job” and therefore one client.

      Funny though – just yesterday I was at coffee with another consultant who works full-time on contract at a client of mine and he asked me whether i was retired (??) That was because I only went into that office a day or so a week and he couldn’t concieve of the fact that i might be at other clients the rest of the time – puzzling… and sad.

      Unfortunately I am finding it harder and harder to get work with the big clients because they have all outsourced their development (and especially their “gate-keeping”) to the Accentures of the world who have absolutely no model for people like us – it is impossible to operate “under-the-radar” like I used to because they have complete control of access to the coporation. This is NOT a good trend for us – nor for the companies that actually NEED our skills – even if they don’t realize that they do ;-) … But that’s another story where MS can come in and help get the message out.

      This is an important thread Simon. This is an issue that simply MUST be dealt with because I believe that the skills we have can really help clients be more productive and efficient. I also think that it is in MS’s (at least the Office Team’s) short and long-term interest to re-energize this space, and of course it’s in OUR interest too …….


    5. Rob Bruce Says:

      Simon, I’ve done mentoring when I was a team leader. It was fantastically rewarding, and I’m still proud of how I brought on the skills of the others in the team. It was there that I discovered that there is a big difference between a junior accountant who’s bored with pushing numbers around and fancies a change (probably won’t make a developer) and another who’s a bit apprehensive of getting too far into the technology but is really keen to solve actual, real world business problems (ideal raw material).

      Dick, I target small businesses and charities – the kind of people who don’t have dedicated IT departments, but still have genuine requirements for information intelligence. It’s quite hard to sell my services, I’ll admit, but I reckon that this is the sector that’s least likely to outsource to the Far East. They’re also much more likely to let me work at my office rather than theirs.

    6. Biggus Dickus Says:


      Yes – that is an attractive market for all the reasons you state.

      The only problem with small biz and charities is getting paid adequately for your efforts. They tend to be cheap (and for legit reasons).

      The big companies understand T&M and frankly our bills tend to be small enough that they don’t attract attention at the Big guys and I get paid without argument 99% of the time. Important issue!! If you don’t get paid then why bother ???


    7. Simon Says:

      You should see the job situation where I am (I should try harder with the mISV).

      Excel and Access are more do-able at home than stuff thats tangled up with the clients server infrastructure (think anything MS has released in the last 10 years, SQL server, sharepoint, .net – all bad ‘work from home’ techs)

      I think many potential Excel/VBA clients don’t consider it because either they aren’t aware of the potential, or their IS department has sold them on a much bigger (job-fer-life) project, or big iron implementation.

      Microsoft should get its hand in its pocket to help educate these folks – we can’t do it alone. instead of pissing their money away on Yahoo they should invest it in their own business. (IMO of course)

      I am actually planning on doing more web stuff as that is an easier sell than Excel/VBA.

    8. Biggus Dickus Says:

      “I am actually planning on doing more web stuff as that is an easier sell than Excel/VBA.”

      SAY IT AIN’T SO !?! ……….. sad :-(

    9. Harlan Grove Says:

      From my perspective, that of an in-house, part-time (non-IT) departmental developer, one of the difficulties with expanding Excel or Access development is succession.

      I learned how to use spreadsheets in the mid 1980s, and there were no college/university courses and outside courses were a joke. So those of us who learned spreadsheets back when they were first became standard business tools were self-taught. Back then spreadsheets and other common applications were much less capable, so departmental/tactical applications were either much less capable or were part of larger ‘systems’ using several tools all of which were much simpler/less capable than what exists now. That means it was easier and quicker to become expert in those systems.

      These days there are college/university/outside training courses in Excel and Access, and some of them may be fairly valuable, but they cover a much smaller fraction of features. Learning Excel or Access effectively still requires hands-on, day-to-day use, but since there’s so much more to learn than there once was, it takes a lot longer to attain expertise.

      Analogy: like having learned to fly in a propeller-driven biplane and moved along through turboprops to jet aircraft while learning the new controls and avionics along the way. The basics of take off, flying through turbulence and landing haven’t changed all that much, but there’s been an exponential increase in the number of controls and subsystems.

      Businesses don’t pay for newly employed 20-somethings to go through the business application equivalent of Navy aviator training. They just put them in an F-20 cockpit. The average ones figure out how to turn the lights on and off and use the radio. The smarter ones figure out how to taxi on the tarmac. The gifted ones may figure out how to fly, but being that clever, they seldom settle on a development career.

      Putting this differently, when’s the last time anyone here heard of a company that spent US$2K/GBP1K on outside training for new hires on any software programs?

      That, in a nutshell, is my perspective on the limitation of future growth in the Excel or Access developer pool.

    10. Simon Says:

      I generally work as part of big BI type implementations (Oracle, Essbase, Cartesis etc) clients are tripping over themselves to send staff on courses for those technologies. Often they pay for a vendor consultant to run inhouse training.

      Getting budget for anything to do with Excel/VBA dev training from those same companies (that know they will need it to tidy up the loose ends) is like getting blood from a stone.

      I normally persuade them to let me do a few 2 hour workshops.

    11. Marcus Says:

      I moved into MSO development from a corporate computer training background and agree with those who’ve stated that the days where a power user can migrate into development. In a decade I’ve only mentored/trained one underlying.

      The perception that someone is simply an Excel/VBA developer is also, I believe, constricted. I can’t recall the last solution I developed which was wholly and solely contained to Excel/VBA. Most solutions utilise some combination of other technologies. These have included other MSO apps, DAO, ADO, ADOMD, SQL, MDX, proprietary API’s such as Essbase and Bloomberg and a host of repositories from text files and Access mdb’s to SQL Server (RDBMS & OLAP), Oracle and Essbase. Are there still Excel/VBA developers who only develop in Excel/VBA? Surely that would corner you to “soon run out of escape routes”.

      Another escape route is domain knowledge. The MSO developer who tries to be an industry ‘jack of all trades’ is surely reducing their marketability. I’m positive that business (domain) knowledge has played an equal role in my employability as has technical knowledge.

      Ironically, I’ve found .Net solutions a harder sell than MSO ones. I’ve experienced increasing resistance by the business to undertake projects which engage their own IT departments. MSO solutions have allowed them the autonomy and control which they have previously scarified and regretted.

      Regards –

    12. Biggus Dickus Says:

      “I’ve experienced increasing resistance by the business to undertake projects which engage their own IT departments. MSO solutions have allowed them the autonomy and control which they have previously scarified and regretted.”

      Yep…. BIG point that MS misses.


    13. Simon Says:

      Re Excel/VBA dev, you are right of course, we have to work with lots of other tech too. The problem is what to call ourselves?
      If we say business dev, it doesn’t give enough info, maybe the client doesn’t have the right tech stack.
      If we say Excel/VBA dev it misses the importance of working with complementary stuff
      If we list everything, then we don’t have room for the ‘how I can fix everything wrong with your company’ section

      Good point on the MSO = independence, I need to get that in a post.

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