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Business Intelligence Careers

Building Skills to Bridge the Gap: Spreadsheets vs. Purpose-Built Tools

5 min read
By Hjalmar Gislason
Apr 13, 2021

NOTE: This is a guest post by Hjalmar Gislason, friend of Maven Analytics and Founder/CEO of GRID, a SaaS startup based in Reykjavik Iceland


Most business professionals have gotten an early exposure to spreadsheets.

First by looking at spreadsheets made by others, then learning to add their own data and do some arithmetic. Next, they might begin using some basic functions, and eventually, they become capable of building fairly advanced models from scratch.

This happens on a gradual learning path, often without any formal training along the way. Skills are gained as the need arises, and each skill earned correlates directly with real world challenges. Building upon layers of contextual experience, many business users develop comprehensive knowledge of Excel without necessarily being aware of the extent of their capabilities.

I wrote about the three types of spreadsheets a couple of years ago, and it remains true in my mind that most - if not all - spreadsheets fall into one of three categories:

  1. Small databases
  2. Models
  3. Simple business process tools

In each of these instances, people are finding solutions by applying skills they’ve learned with a familiar tool that they consider relatively simple to use, yet powerful enough to achieve results. Importantly, they do this without having to rely on help from others. In other words, spreadsheets enable the people at the “edge of the enterprise” to accomplish many everyday IT needs without the help of IT specialists, their BI unit, or other centralized functions. It’s empowering to get stuff done on your own terms.

Rapid innovation creates exponential demand for new skills

So what do we do when we reach what we think is the limit of our abilities, or encounter a problem that our current skill-set doesn’t address? There are certainly purpose-built “power user” tools that are often better suited for the task at hand than the generic spreadsheet. However, adopting these tools and learning how to use them interrupts the gradual learning curve. When I need to accomplish something, I’d rather find a way around it in Excel and learn how to use a new function or feature than interrupt my flow and pick up a new tool.

New tools take dedicated time and effort to learn, and weeks or even months might go by before I’m able to benefit from them. I need to take care of my tasks NOW.

Skill-building in this context is no longer a step-by-step process — the adoption of purpose-built tools changes the way people learn and necessitates more formalized training and deeper learning. And in fact, those who choose to reskill within the fields of BI and analytics can often transform their careers.

A spreadsheet “generalist” who becomes an expert with their organization's BI tool of choice could very well end up being the go-to person for any analytic needs within their professional circle, making them a more valuable contributor within their organization, and more competitive in a highly-specialized labor market.

This way, a Google Sheets or Excel user could transition to Power BI, or a Tableau expert to Python or R — there are a variety of ways in which one competency can facilitate expertise in another. Depending on your strategy, identifying a need (either from a personal perspective or within your organization) to specialize in a particular area may be a great career move.

However, you’ll also want to be sure that these specialized skills are likely to have a long lifespan. A crucial question to consider when developing your career strategy is whether a particular competency offers long-term value for your chosen path. Maintaining an awareness of the newest tech tools and innovations can provide useful perspective, but knowing where best to invest time and energy growing core competencies is key.

Adapting to the gap: new ways to apply existing skills

But imagine not needing to jump the looming digital skills gap. What if there were tools that allowed you to continue along a gradual learning curve and build on your extensive spreadsheet know-how instead of learning something from the ground up in a new paradigm?

Let’s go back to the “basic” spreadsheet. What many don’t realize is that spreadsheets are in fact programming tools. As soon as you write a formula into a spreadsheet, you are indeed programming. But instead of writing code that gets executed line-by-line, you’re coding the relationships between data that lives in cells in a 2-dimensional grid. And while spreadsheets aren’t the perfect environments to write every software you could imagine, they’re actually more versatile than you’d think, and ideal for building a variety of simple business tools. This is what makes spreadsheets in general, and Excel in particular, the most used programming environment in the world.

Many spreadsheet users don’t realize the level of their abilities when it comes to data modelling, analytics and coding business logic. What a competent spreadsheet user can achieve with Excel as it comes out-of-the box might take a professional web developer hundred of lines of code across several programming languages to accomplish.

Non-expert Excel users may not be fluent in the jargon used by their more advanced counterparts, and terms such as “multi-dimensional data” or “wide-form tables” can be intimidating, even though they may work with the concepts themselves every day. Reaching these people means redefining what it is to be a programmer, data scientist, or analyst. Introducing a more inclusive way to learn and exercise these skills has the potential to fire up many millions of newly minted programmers.

Many people are capable of fairly complicated data modeling, without knowing any of the data-modeling jargon.

More and more software vendors are realizing this, and in the world of low-code/no-code and productivity tools, there’s been a surge of what might collectively be thought of as next-generation spreadsheet tools. These are tools that build on the UI metaphors, skills, and assets that businesses and their employees have built and acquired in spreadsheets over decades. Just take a look at tools like Airtable, Smartsheet, Rows, Coda and Monday.com. Adaptability is central to success, and next-generation spreadsheet tools are here to help.

Proficiency with spreadsheets is a powerful skill, and the emergence of these new tools makes it a widely transferable one. I believe that people can do even more than they thought possible by leveraging skills they already have. This idea is at the heart of what we’re building at GRID. We aim to empower people who’ve already collected data or built spreadsheet models to transform their work into beautiful, interactive narratives that can be securely shared online. GRID eliminates familiar hassles like emailing spreadsheets as attachments, sharing them from the cloud, or copy-pasting them into PowerPoints and PDFs for distribution, making data work a joy.

To wrap it up

The enduring relevance of spreadsheet software speaks to the lasting value it can create for professionals in a wide variety of fields. By better utilizing the skills you already have, you grow from a place of strength. So, when facing a knowledge/skills gap and charting the course for your next career move, the best strategy could be to maximize your existing skills and adapt them to new challenges. You might just surprise yourself!

Author

Hjalmar Gislason

Hjalmar Gislason is the founder and CEO of GRID, a SaaS startup based in Reykjavik Iceland. GRID is a productivity tool that transforms your spreadsheets into shareable, interactive web documents.

Hjalmar Gislason is the founder and CEO of GRID, a SaaS startup based in Reykjavik Iceland. GRID is a productivity tool that transforms your spreadsheets into shareable, interactive web documents.

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