Excel, universal and powerful, yet underused

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Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet is one of the oldest and most popular software applications, on both Windows and Apple Mac platforms. There are also versions for Android and iOS, though they may be less effective than those on Windows and Mac.اضافة اعلان

Regardless of one’s background, work or needs, virtually everyone uses Excel, at various degrees and various levels. The application has dominated the world of spreadsheets ever since it outclassed the early similar products VisiCalc (Apple), Multiplan (Microsoft) and Lotus 123 (Lotus/IBM), which were developed in the 1980s. Today, 34 years after its first introduction on the market, Excel is the absolute, unique reference in the spreadsheets domain.

Thanks to its versatility and flexibility, which enable one to process anything from the simplest arithmetic operation to complex calculations, forecast, accounting, data analysis, statistics, modelling and advanced mathematics, and also to building simple databases with content consisting of text, dates and/or numbers, Excel is truly a universal, handy software tool. According to the company, 750 million people are Excel users.

However, and precisely perhaps because of its extended scope of applications, large number of functions (450 of them!) and wide-range possibilities, the majority is underusing it. It is the same for several of Microsoft Office Suite modules, like Word for instance, but in the case of Excel, the gap between using it in a somewhat basic, “primitive” way, and being able to make a better use of its advanced functionality is wider.

Basic users would know less than 10 percent of Excel, the more advanced and average users 20 to 30 percent, and the power-users between 40 and 70 percent. Claiming more than that would mean that either you are on the team who developed Excel, created it, or that you are a scientific person deeply in love with the app and spend a couple of hours on it every day.

As it is often the case, the reason for underusing Excel is simply lack of training. In a way, it is Excel’s own fault. Because it is easy to start working with it by yourself, without any training, most of those who are self-taught are content with the knowledge they acquire this way and make do with it. They stop short of making the effort or taking the time to go further and explore all the possibilities. And yet, Excel can do wonders if one cares to delve into its amazing capabilities.

Knowing Excel better starts with a good, thorough, understanding of the various formats, dates mainly. Taking the time to learn the rarely used functions also matters. Fortunately, the app has an “insert function” menu item that lets you explore all of them, by category, and to experiment with them one by one.

The next step would be to learn how to record and save macro commands, which are precious customizable shortcuts tools that let you automate repetitive actions or actions that otherwise would take several mouse clicks each time.

Macros can be used at two different levels. The first is the easy “record and play macro”. The second consists of fine tuning or modifying the VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) code that the macro would have generated. Granted, this is computer programming, apparently only for IT pros or for the very brave. But it sounds harder than it actually is, and with a little trial and error, and of course some patience, the reward is worth it every time.

The bravest can also write VBA code from scratch, integrate it in Excel, and this way customize it to their liking and specific needs. This is considered the ultimate convenience and power. In most cases, it will prove to be a precious time saver.

On the lighter side, Excel has a function that is supposed to convert a number present in a cell into its fully spelled out equivalent. For example, 368 would be automatically converted as “three hundred sixty-eight”. However, the function built in Excel for that purpose, that is called Bahttext, would generate text in Thai and not in English. Rumor has it that this is because the development team would order Thai food during the sleepless nights they used to spend working on creating Excel, and so they created Bahttext to please the Thai restaurant owner (Thailand currency is the baht, hence the function name).

It is, however, easy to find on the web a Bahttext equivalent matching your own language, to download it and add it to your copy of Excel. Versions of Bahttext in English, French, Arabic and Spanish have fallen in the public domain and are legally free to download and use.

Excel latest versions come with sheets that have 16 billion cells (1,048,576 rows by 16,384 columns) each. But one should not try to fill all of them or even a too-large part of them, as that risks making the application unresponsive, even with a very fast computer fitted with a very large memory.

The good news is that when data becomes too big to handle in Excel, it can very easily and quickly be exported to a database application like MS-Access for instance.

With all the tutorials available on YouTube, taking Excel to the next level on your own is easy. Patience and practice are required, just like for most activities in life.

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