Excel Careers

I saw some stuff about careers in Excel over at JWalks blog a while ago. (so long ago I can’t now find it!)

My honest advice? avoid it like the plague!


Well firstly let me say I think Excel VBA is a brilliant enabling technology and has massive value in supporting business/technical users (well non IT professionals) to express and then process their ideas. I think it is still as good, in absolute terms and relative to alternative technologies as when I moved over from Lotus 123 in the 90’s. And I know plenty of other people with similar views.

But… and it is a big (and bold) but, the love for Excel VBA from Microsoft has gone, interference by IT departments has increased, fear of spreadsheets has increased. Corporate governance advising against spreadsheets has increased. The tech hasn’t changed but attitudes have.

For me, for 2011 the golden triangle is Excel, VBA and business knowledge. But its in decline, significant decline.

The trouble is, there isn’t a drop in replacement, C# isn’t going to take over from VBA, VBA is a business user/developer language, C# is a software developer language. Most biz users won’t get access to Visual Studio any time soon, so unless a future version of Excel has an embedded C# dev environment (VSTA?) C# isn’t coming to the biz. If Office 15 has a VS-like IDE then VB.net or C#, (or Python/Ruby) might replace mainstream VBA around 2015-2017.

I’m not clear what the new world will be as I don’t see IT departments staffing up to replace all these mission critical spreadsheets they don’t like. I think there will be some seepage to other techs, hopefully better structured than your average spreadsheet jungle. But I just don’t see IT departments being able to keep up with the rate users create spreadsheets. Never mind get ahead.

There was some interesting discussion on the predictions post about how some of the newer techs from MS are more specialist, and that’s true. And it reinforces something people have said about Excel for a long time – its the second best tool for everything. Are we moving away from the general purpose, contort to fit approach, to a bunch of super short-term specialist, in and out roles?

I haven’t seen any roles for Excel Services specialists, or Power Pivot pros yet. And I think eventually in many orgs some random IT person will end up picking up a basic level in a few of them. This lack of specialisation will just create a bunch of suboptimal solutions in none Excel techs, and not really improve anything imo. I guess it might improve vendor lock-in. But it will be a maintenance hell, because no one definable skill set will be applicable. I don’t expect to see big consulting or contracting opportunities in these techs, ever, unless take up suddenly rockets, which I don’t expect either.

So what after 2011?

I reckon there will be two routes

  1. Business, with Excel/Business/VBA/Business specific tech (JDE/Essbase/SAP/OLAP etc, etc). These roles will decline for a while
  2. IT, with a bit of Excel/VBA and the usual .net/SQL/project management etc, business skills not so important in these roles which will increase for a while I think
  3. I think these might converge again in 5 yrs or so, probably around a different tech mix, dunno what, Google Apps?

I think much better career bets right now would be in Oracle, Web development, mobile, or any other server tech, Sharepoint might be a good option. The Excel bridge from biz to IT I think is disappearing, which is a shame, as both sides will lose out unless an alternative can be found to share knowledge.

If you exclude the City from your Jobserve results, there isnt much to go at. Yes it looks like the investment banks/trading companies are keeping the faith with Excel/Access/VBA. But many of them are also looking for C# and SQL skills with a view to migrating away.

I don’t know what the Office development world will look like in 2+ years, but I do expect it to be more barren (and more niche) than now. what do you think? what would you advise a 20 something wanting to get out of a business role?



20 Responses to “Excel Careers”

  1. Ingeborg Hawighorst Says:

    >> what would you advise a 20 something wanting to get out of a business role?

    Just returning from a SharePoint conference: Get into SharePoint, of course. Specialise in an area like Excel Services or PerformancePoint, get into shape with SS?S, get started with .NET to bridge the gap. Keep an eye out for OWA and what else is happening in the cloud space.

    And, if you have roots in a business role: keep the end user in mind and put yourself into their shoes. Technology for technology’s sake will never pay your bill. All the snazzy, sparkling stuff that is possible (think dashboards/Excelsius (brrrr)/Dundas (aaaaAAArrghhh!) now go look up Stephen Few and perceptualedge.com) will not necessarily add value to your business.

    Whatever technology you use, make it simple and easy to understand for the end user, for the Board, and for the CEO, who, ultimately, writes your cheque.

  2. Simon Says:

    I just looked on Jobserve for Sharepoint jobs.
    Its overrun with them!
    all over the country, in all sorts of industries, on all sorts of rates
    This is certainly where the Office love is at Microsoft just now, so yep I would agree this could be a good bet.

  3. Bob Phillips Says:

    That’s if you want to immerse yourself in boring, Microsoft-hugging technology. Sharepoint is dull, dull, dull!

  4. Simon Says:

    Yeah I didnt mention I wouldnt touch sharepoint with a bargepole. Not because it is dull, more because I have only had bad experiences with it in the real world. Looks great in Microsoftville contoso world, in real companies though there are a million dead ends.

  5. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Frankly I’ve been beaten down by the lack of any interest in the future of Excel as anything but a glorified calculator from Microsoft. I’ve tried very hard for the last several years to get something out of them but it is apparently a complete waste of time.

    There is absolutely no way that a private company can justify going out and promoting Excel anymore … the opportunity just isn’t there anymore. As I’ve said many times before the only organization that can change this is Microsoft but IMHO they have gotten bored with Excel and Office in general in their obsession with out-Googling Google.

    Sadly the irony is that if they DO get people to go to this “Cloud” place they talk about so much the imoprtance of powerfully designed Excel “Solutions” is a core part of their scenario … and that would require people with the necessary skills to make that happen. It would be in their interest to promote and develop those skills. But nope. Nothing. In fact they are going out of their way to completely downplay Excel and to promote it effectively as a product that is just used to dump a recordset out of some Web-Page and tha’s the end of the line. Who cares if they do anything with that info once in Excel…. What a crying shame. That data in Excel is just the start of another amazing way to present, analyze or integrate with other info to creat something totally new and better for the user and their bosses. But NOOOOO … who cares about that ??

    I just can’t believe that I am seeing this happen after 25+ years of watching the technology go right into Excel’s sweet-spot with faster processors, lotsa cheap fast RAM, ubiquitous connectivity across the World (to say nothing of just behind the Firewall) and incredible capabilities inside Excel itself. Where’s the buzz about the capabilities of PoswerPivot, about Lists and Structured References, about the entire automation story in Excel using VBA ??

    Yes – I really can’t bring myself to tell a young person that learning Excel at a high level is going to benefit them in any way and the ultimate losers in that scenario are all businesses everywhere (and ironically even Microsoft) who will not get to reap the benefits that this technology (that’s already sitting right in front of them) could give them. Sad…

    But don’t let this stop you from having a nice day :-) …


  6. Excel Careers « Dick Moffat's Excel and Access Blog Says:

    […] https://smurfonspreadsheets.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/excel-careers/ […]

  7. Claire Says:

    I don’t know about there not being a role for emerging excel technologies–Rob Collie recently launched Pivot Stream, and it seems to be doing quite well.
    However, I think that the role of static desktop Office solutions is quickly losing ground to server- and cloud-based versions, because the latter scale so much better.

    • Biggus Dickus Says:

      “because the latter scale so much better.”

      That’s certainly the party line against Excel but I have techniques that make Excel Desktop very Scalable with multiple users around the world clicking on a SharePoint link and laucnhing a powerful, fully automated Excel VBA application that often-times subsequently pushes data back into SQL databases.

      I sure wish we had a chance to countre that “scaleability” meme. I’ve dealt with that line for more thn 10 years ago and I;m frankly a little sick of hearing it and sick of not hearing it countered… :-(. If you wanna see an example just ping me and I can set you up to see something that IS scaleable Claire – any time..


  8. Simon Says:

    I am happy to accept that Excel is not as scaleable as other techs, oh I dont know like server based writers, well in fact anything server based seeing as how Excel is not server safe.

    My point is that scalability is irrelevant until you have a clue what you need to scale, and a rapid development tool (specifically Excel) helps you pin point that in terms the users can understand in a product that can be tested for correctness. nothing else comes close.
    And of course many tools never need scaling because either they got superseded or the target audience is so small (my last trading app had 2 users), most of my stuff has a handful of users world wide. Its worth leaving it in the tech they are happy with, and working around the limitations, for dev speed and acceptance, if nothing else.
    Once you know what you need and how to do it then I’m all for more scalable techs.

  9. David Says:

    A few thoughts (admittedly from a City perspective). I think the comment that Excel is “he second best tool for everything” is wrong. If you want to deliver data and some analysis to a client (perhaps with charts), and maybe give them some flexibility in how to view the data then I would argue it’s second to nothing for this. Why bother writing a flexible grid component that allows formula etc when you have Excel? Also everyone (well almost) has Excel installed on their desktop – so it becomes a universal way of moving data around. We also do things in R and Gauss, but delivering a spreadsheet with the results is by far the best way to get things to clients.

    I’ve become a convert to Excel DNA – allows a combination of C#, a flexible database underlying this with the user friendliness of Excel.

    But I’d second Ingebord’s comments – something that is simple that everyone can use (OK, I’ve had one client who couldn’t cope with the fact that the tabs were off the bottom of his Excel window and so thought he only had a single sheet) and is widely available gets you paid.

  10. Bob Phillips Says:

    Simon is so right, too often companies are being seduced by the vendor marketing hype rather than looking at their actual requirements and seeing what is available that fits their needs. And who are the most customers gullible here, good old IT.

    We are forever being told about the latest hype, client server, OO, XML, cloud, and so on and so on. Of course, our favourite technology vendor is usually the first to wade in and spout irrelevancies about the latest hype, saying this is the thing that will deliver everything you ever needed. When things settle down, it usually transpires that some aspects of each of these technologies is useful, a lot is rubbish, and the good bits get abosrbed into everyday practices and processes.

    I am reminded of an event I attended with such vendor where we were being told that every system has to be internet delivered, social networking integrated, and cloud based (you can probably hear my yawns from there!). One ‘fact’ that was given out to support this hypothesis was some percentage increase in business done by internet companies just before Christmas because of the snow. It was suggested that this showed how the new technologies were better, and customers had turned to them because they couldn’t get out to the shops in the bad weather. As I pointed, nothing had changed, the problem had just been shifted along as those same customers got no better service as nobody was delivering those goods anyway … because of the snow and bad weather. That is generally what happens with any of these fads.

    Scaleability strikes me as just such a thing. How many systems need real scaleability? Does anyone believe that the requirements of a company that has grown 100 times in a few years is the same as it originally was, only with 100 times as much data/reporting/overnight processing? All systems should be properly sized, accounting for expected growth, and built in a way to accommodate expected growth. Are you really going to design and build a system that works just as well with 100 times the volumes if you only realistically expect 10 times?

    I have rarely seen a company reorganisation deliver the gains that were promised, and my experience of new technologies is the same. Sure. many have value, many add to the sum game, but beware getting sucked in.

  11. m-b Says:

    “what would you advise a 20 something wanting to get out of a business role?”

    I would advise to stay in the business role but learn advanced Excel, data analysis and data visualisation skills to excel (haha) in that business role. In my opinion (and experience) that can really give you an advantage over others.

    In terms of Excel development maybe PowerPivot will take off? I haven’t seen it in many job descriptions yet though.

  12. Marcus from London Says:

    Well let’s look at this from a couple of different angles.

    At close of play today there were 61 London based, VBA contracts advertised on jobserve (yes I know there’s duplicates, but this is a [very] rough barometer). This is a relatively low number – a couple of weeks ago it almost breached the 100 mark.

    If you pare this down to exclude roles which require (include) C#, the number drops (plummets?) to 37. I never monitor the permie ads – someone let me know if the trends are comparable. What this suggests (screams?) is that VBA in and of itself is a dying craft (regardless of the host application, although for our argument it’s Excel).

    Now swinging around to another perspective, in a prior gig I worked with a ‘proper’ IT developer (the kind of guy who actualy declined a job at Google). We were involved in the IB’s £120M project to elevate their P&L and risk reporting processes out of Excel into something more robust. Well, not quite. These monsters (which really shouldn’t have existed in Excel) had > 500K formulae, used Excel simply as a GUI and contained thousands of LOC (okay, about 20k).

    Yet several weeks of study couldn’t determine why the VBA code suddenly crapped out (yes that’s a technical term) in the middle of their several hour calc run. The IT trained guys were at a loss to determine the cause.

    After examining with the code for a while I felt that the modules were too large – in context of VBA/6’s sparsely documented 64k module file size limit. Yes, that’s right, the modules were too big. As the Google guy said afterwards, ‘there is no way I would ever have figured that’.

    This is not a bragging session (the Google guy is waaaaay smarter than I am) but a ‘learned in the trenches’ or ‘affinity with your tool’ story. IT have been given ridiculously little (read: zero) exposure to the technology the business lives and dies by that they are inadequately equipped to pick up the current state of affairs (a.k.a VBA solutions) and either run with it or move it to greener pastures and bring at the new smokin’ gun.

    So what’s a nerd to do?

    We’ll technology is not the answer all by itself. Understanding (I mean ‘really understanding’) the business domain you operate in should come before anything else. Their problems second. Business driven solutions a third and then eventually the technology.

    This (pseudo)SWOT analysis falls apart real quick when you realise that the business (from my perspective, this is IB risk analysts) live and breathe in Excel and any solution you develop is best (actually, MUST) delivered in that medium.

    So the final call is IT (and MS?) wanting to strangle Excel/VBA while the business (currently) still says this is our ‘tool of trade’.

    So the final resolutions is… (shrug) Dunno.

    What I DO know though, is that if I didn’t know .Net, C#, WPF, ADO.Net, OLAP, ADO, DAO, COM (yadda, yadda, yadda) I couldn’t be a VBA developer.

  13. Harlan Grove Says:

    IT LOVES recentralization. Unfortunately, so do finance departments.

    Excel is still more convenient for me than alternatives, but I have to admit that Excel (like all other spreadsheets I’ve ever used) sucks for multiple developer projects. Not that multiple developers is always a good thing, but it’s obvious why IT prefers pretty much anything else.

    I don’t see SharePoint improving on this. Seems to me it’s just a means of centralizing spreadsheets and other ‘documents’. IT is never going to bother to learn the Office tools well enough to make it work well, and they’ll never give mere end-users sufficient access rights to do so.

    That so, I think SharePoint will die off some time in the next 7 years, and by 2020 all business software will run through a browser. [MSFT will have flipped their current spiel and claim they’ve optimized Windows to run IE.] Office will be centered even more firmly around Word and Outlook with Excel seen as the moral equivalent of PowerPoint, a nasty but unavoidable business tool for the ‘customer-facing’, and they’ll all be cloud-based.

    What’ll be left? Dunno. Business Objects and the like maybe, but would any IT dept ever give any end-users tools which would allow those end-users to automate BO? I have my doubts. From my peculiar position, stats packages like SAS, S-Plus/R or Stata will be the only tools still clearly serving needs which IT can’t recode no matter how many trained apes or outsource contractors they hire. In other words, if what you do involves the occasional integral, differential equation or eigenvalue/vector calc, you’re safe – you’ll keep your specialized tools. For everything else, mass production quality applications await.

  14. ross Says:

    share point.

  15. Paul Mathews Says:

    I finally got tired of banging my head against the Excel/VBA wall. “No love from Microsoft” for VBA is a terrific understatement. I worked for one of the big four audit firms and they have no coherent strategy to leverage the power of Excel despite the fact that it is installed on every single PC in the company. The IT folks of course viewed me as an interesting curiosity but not one that they could actually take seriously (despite the fact that I could knock together polished, fully-automated solutions much faster than anything they could put together in their “big iron” platforms. So, I migrated over to web design. Much more fun, works out my shriveled right lobe, and I don’t have to deal with Microsoft stupidity anymore.

  16. Simon Says:

    Hi Paul
    Well done for making the move, I have tried similar myself a few times, but never managed to make it stick (yet). I think a few more of us will go the same way over the next year or two.

  17. George Says:

    As a 20 something year old thoroughly involved in learning VB and Excel to automate business processes this article made me hang my head lol.

    had started having doubts in the past couple of months as to where this path was taking me and these doubts have been solidified after reading your comments.

    Back to finance for this young pup – i’ll leave the development to web developers as i cannot be bothered making a switch from vb to programming languages for the web.

  18. Simon Says:

    Hey George, sad to hear your comments, but I think you are doing the right thing for now. A bit of programming knowledge will always be useful, and may be a good base for a future move when things become clearer around how this biz/it tussle will turn out. The power will probably swing back to the biz in 5 years anyway.

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