How do Business Analysts use Excel [Guest Post from a Rock-star BA]

Posted on February 2nd, 2011 in interviews , Learn Excel - 17 comments

On Jan 4, I received this email from Matt,

Thank you for sharing all of your knowledge on such an incredible website. Your site has such an incredible array of useful tips, tricks, and solutions to every day problems, I don’t know what I would do without it! It’s the only place I go to look for help when I’m stumped with excel. Thanks to you, I’ve become an “excel wizard,” and have been able to show coworkers mind blowing new things with excel they never knew about. I even taught a 4 week training class at my old job! Over the past 3 years, tips I’ve learned from your site have been appreciated all the way in Seattle, Washington, at an internet marketing company, a newspaper, and a food website.

While the mail is flattering, I was more interested to know how Matt uses Excel in his day to day work. So I asked him to write a small guest post sharing his experiences. He gladly accepted the offer and here were are, with a post full of tips & ideas to help you. I am sure many business analysts, analysts and managers out there can co-relate to Matt’s experience.

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Guest Article by Matt Decuir

How do business analysts use Excel - Experience of a Rockstar BA

At Allrecipes.com we use excel for a variety of purposes. Analyzing site trends, forecasting traffic, charts, dashboards, and slide shows; you name it, we use excel for it. That’s why Chandoo’s tips have been so helpful – because we use excel every day. Thanks to chandoo.org, I’ve developed a reputation as an “excel wizard” and even taught a 4 week excel training class!

Most of your colleagues are probably like mine – they’ve got a pretty good understanding of excel. They use formulas and charts regularly, occasionally experimenting with Pivot Tables. As a Chandoo reader, you’re probably already an excel expert or well on your way to becoming one. But even more important than your excel expertise is the ability to communicate helpful tips to others. Regardless of your audience, complicated formulas can be difficult to explain. If you can point out tips that are within your colleagues’ comprehension, you will quickly become an excel rock star. The trick is to know your audience.

Here are a few simple tips that will wow your colleagues:

  • Autofill: Instead of wasting time scrolling and dragging a formula all the way down the page, your colleagues will be amazed that double clicking on the AutoFill icon will automatically do it for them.
  • Transpose: Need to change how your data is oriented? Not sure exactly how to phrase what you’re trying to do? Just Paste Special and check the Transpose box and your data will magically be transformed from horizontal to vertical.
  • Keyboard Shortcuts: Scrolling is the enemy. Nobody wants to waste their whole day scrolling to the bottom of a spreadsheet. Here are a few keyboard shortcuts that will save time:
    • CTRL + down arrow:To get to the bottom row of your data set
    • CTRL +up arrow: To get the top row of your data set
    • CTRL + right arrow: To get to the last column of your data set
    • CTRL + left arrow: To get to the first column of your data set
    • CTRL + Home: To get to the first cell (top left) in your data set
    • CTRL + End: To get to the last cell (bottom right) in your data set
    • Bonus: Holding SHIFT down while using any of the above shortcuts will select that entire range
  • Charts: Charts are confusing. They never do what you want them to do. Most people have used charts before, but are in no way experts. You’ll win points if you can explain how to:
  • Pivot Tables: Pivot Tables are daunting to most people who don’t use them regularly. If you can help your colleagues navigate the treacherous waters of Pivot Tables, they will definitely appreciate it. Keep it simple though, as the flexibility can get overwhelming to new users very quickly.
    • Start by creating a Pivot Table to answer 1 question. Then explain how to filter and sort the data. By doing this, your colleagues will slowly warm to Pivot Tables, making them less overwhelming.

Now that you’ve got some simple tips in your repertoire, here are the formulas and tools I use the most:

Lookup and Text Formulas:

  • SUMIFS, AVERAGEIFS, and COUNTIFS: Like SUMIF on steroids. Useful for looking up any non-text values with multiple criteria
    • Great for recreating the functionality of a Pivot, but allowing you to format the output however you would like
    • Makes month over month calculations extremely easy, especially with named cells.
  • VLOOKUP, INDEX, and MATCH: Useful for looking up any text values
    • Always make sure to end your VLOOKUP with FALSE to return the exact match
  • IFERROR: Replaces errors with a different value
    • i.e. IFERROR(A1/B1,0) replaces errors with zeroes
  • LEFT, MID, RIGHT, and SEARCH: Useful for parsing specific parts out of URLs

Date Formulas:

  • TODAY(): Automatically calculates today’s date
  • DATE: Useful for calculating specific days in the year
    • i.e. DATE(YEAR(TODAY()),1,1) calculates the first day of the year (“1/1/2011″)
  • EDATE: Increments a date by X number of months. Negative numbers also work to go backwards.
    • i.e. EDATE(A1,1) increments a date by 1 month (“2/1/2011″)
  • TEXT: Converts a value to any date format you would like
    • i.e. TEXT(A1,”dddd”) converts a date into day of the week (“Monday”)
    • i.e. TEXT(A1,”mmmm”) converts a date into a month (“January”)
  • WEEKDAY: Returns the day number in the week.
    • i.e. WEEKDAY($A1,2)>5 returns TRUE for weekends

Charts:

  • Dynamic Chart Ranges: Use OFFSET and named ranges to only chart cells that have values. This saves time because you don’t have to update chart data ranges each month
    • Alternatively, returning errors (#N/A) when values are blank will also exclude empty cells from line and bar charts
  • Rolling Chart Data Ranges: Set a static number of months and use SUMIFS to populate values automatically
  • Dynamic Chart Data Labels: Great for showing month over month % change, instead of default data labels

Other Tools:

  • Named ranges: Useful for referencing calculated dates, lookup formulas, data validation lists, creating dashboards, etc…
    • CTRL + F3: shows all the named ranges in your spreadsheet
  • Data Validation: For creating drop down lists
    • Named ranges allow you to reference a list of values in a separate tab
  • Conditional Formatting: For formatting everything!
    • Highlight Cell Rules: Highlights positive values in green, negative values in red
    • Custom Formula Rules: Useful for shading weekends in gray when looking at a whole month’s data by day (i.e. WEEKDAY($A1,2)>5)
    • Data Bars: Shows a tiny bar chart within the cell. Good for showing trends within a data table

I hope these tips help you become a rock star among your friends and colleagues!

Matt Decuir
Business Analyst, Allrecipes.com
(decuirm at gmail dot com)

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Thank you Matt

Thanks for sharing your experiences and ideas so openly. This proves that to be a successful analyst, good understanding of numbers and tools is necessary.

If you like this article, say thanks to Matt. Also tell us how you are using Excel to become awesome at work. Go ahead and leave a comment.

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17 Responses to “How do Business Analysts use Excel [Guest Post from a Rock-star BA]”

  1. gcuccu says:

    “..Autofill: Instead of wasting time scrolling and dragging a formula all the way down the page, your colleagues will be amazed that double clicking on the AutoFill icon will automatically do it for them..” –>>Be careful though: if the right or left of the column where there are data origin of the formula is an empty box autofill stops right there. So if you make a formula at the end of the column such as a sum check first if all cells are complete!! Thanks for All

  2. JO says:

    One other word of caution, if you have a spreadsheet that is being fed live data or is performance sensitive, then TODAY, OFFSET and other volatile functions can crush the performance of the sheet. A volatile function will automatically cause a recalculation of the cell that contains it any time an edit is made anywhere in the sheet. This can become a huge issue if that cell is a dependent for a large set of formulas elsewhere because a recalc in the cell with the volatile function will cause a refresh any formulas for which it is a dependent. Just imagine an entire spreadsheet recalculating every time you make a change anywhere.

  3. JO says:

    One other thing, very nice post Matt. As a fellow BA, I think you have a done a great job at capturing the Excel chops that most BA’s bring to the table.

  4. Tom Quist says:

    Thanks, Matt! I didn’t know about the “show named ranges” shortcut.

  5. Pramod says:

    Thanks Matt! This indeed help a lot.

  6. Matt Decuir says:

    Good catch gcuccu, that’s a very good point! It’s important that you don’t have any extra empty cells when using Autofill — or at least that you’re aware of them.

    JO, you’re right too. Most of the tips listed above assume you are working in a reasonably sized spreadsheet that doesn’t lock up when performing a calculation. Thanks for pointing that out!

  7. Prem Sivakanthan says:

    Great work Matt! Excellent summary.

    One of my favs that you’ve mentioned is the dynamic chart ranges…no more updating the series every month for my dashboard!

  8. Chris says:

    Excellent post Al and timely too. I am doing a one hour “lunch & learn” session tomorrow on pivot tables for our finance group. Your recommendations will help me keep focused on the simple stuff.

    By the way, I showed the “double-click trick” recently to a colleague, she nearly wept with joy!

  9. Christian says:

    Hi Guys, I’m also a long time chandoo convert and even longer as a BA – (discovered this site for myself when trying to create my first dash board, at the time I thought I was the only person in the world with that bizarre facination) – I like Matt’s summary too..However, most of us know the excel controls.

    I’d really like to know what other BA’s “Do” with excel, and why.

    e.g. when I found this site I was working for an international media organisation, who didn’t have designated BI tools, so I recreated the dashboard concepts which I had previously created with tools such as SAS and Business Objects, but within excel 2003 as this was the only tool available to me. It was a monthly top 20 customer dashboard.

    I’ve also used Excel for creating correspondence – Excel, not Word….self calculating, auto populating, monthly incentive payment letters.

    It is these little things that have kept me stimulated as a BA/ PM and keen to be part of sites like Chandoo.

    Really love hearing (& seeing) what people “actually do” with excel,why they did it with excel etc.

  10. Jayant says:

    Thanks Matt this was really useful, I am also wondering on a Pivot chard can we add dynamic filters to user for selection ? if anyone knows please share it here .

    Thanks and cheers!!!

  11. Jayant says:

    Good ~ this is excelent summarization of most of the tips.! thanks Matt

  12. GOPI says:

    thank you Matt

  13. Pavan says:

    Hi Chandoo, ur doing a great job. its simply awesome sight for the excel user. From past 2 days im using ur site its great. I want surprise that in dis site the search option is not available. It would be great help to find the information

  14. rahul aggarwal says:

    sir,
    chandoo ji
    is there any option in excel for merge excel file’s data oor syncronise option?

  15. Hui... says:

    @Rahul
    Excel has a number of Consolidation options including a Built in Consolidate as well as use of SQL which can import and merge data from a number of sources including any SQL, ODBC, OLE or XML data source, Access/SQL, text files and even excel worksheets.

  16. Ute_@_Binghamton_U says:

    Thanks, Matt!

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