Oz du Soleil recording a video

Office Insider Spotlight: Oz du Soleil

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Oz du Soleil still remembers the first time he discovered the real value of Excel in resolving a pesky data problem.

“I was working in a call center, and customers kept calling up with the same kinds of complaints. I was in charge of a program where people would get awards when they completed their continuing education, and I had to look up people who completed it and send out this gold pin and a certificate. And the admins would call up and say, ‘You people sent me this one again, and you didn’t send me these other two? You people! You people!’” he recalled with a laugh.

“And I would get these canned reports sent to me, and I could tell they were wrong. So after a while I would say, ‘Just stop sending me that dang report. I will write a query, and then get this big data dump and just peel it down myself in Excel.’ So that’s where I really got into Excel—and all I could do at that time was drag stuff around, and filter and sort, and hand-color cells. I didn’t know Excel really, I didn’t know data. I just saw myself as a guy who was solving problems.”

Fast forward nearly two decades, and Oz is still helping people solve problems using Excel—only now, he does it for an audience of tens of thousands. He runs the popular YouTube channel Excel on Fire, operates his own consulting business, and has written books about using Excel to manage your data. (And he’s not above using a sword or a turkey foot in his videos and presentations, for fun and engagement.)Oz du Soleil with laptop

The Portland-based Oz noted that he’s always learning new things about his favorite application. He also observed that sometimes his clients and followers need to adjust their expectations regarding this powerful program.

“I get these messages saying, ‘How do I master Excel?’ he said. “And I say, ‘You don’t master Excel.’ But for most people, you have a role where you can get good using Excel.”

Oz spoke with Susan Cockrell, senior PM for the Office Insider program, about his “rogue” approach to his career, what he gets from being an Office Insider, the time he wrote a 25-level IF statement, and why he loves teaching people about Excel.

I love the story of how you started out, because I think sometimes people think of Excel as just spreadsheets. I love the way you look at it, like, “This is the tool.”

Exactly, yeah. Early in my career, there was a job that came out for a commissions analyst, and my director convinced me to apply for it. And the person who was going to be my supervisor was talking about something in Excel and I said, “I don’t know how to do that.” And she said, “That’s just a pivot table. I can show you how to do a pivot table.” And so I learned there was more to it than just Excel skills.

They needed somebody who was willing to go digging, probing, and picking. She could show me Excel—pivot tables, and VLOOKUPs, and whatnot. But she couldn’t train somebody to actually look into problems when the numbers looked funny.

Eventually, there was a mass layoff at the company in 2008. And then people started calling and asking me Excel questions. “Can you come do a two-hour training with my small company?” Stuff like that. But I still didn’t see Excel as a real skill. I was investigating, “Should I get a certification in risk analysis, or logistics, or something?”

But then I started to embrace Excel. And through the forums I met Bill Jelen and Mike Girvin, people like them. I could finally see Excel as the thing I wanted to pursue. So I became a consultant, and then eventually I wrote a book with Bill Jelen. And then getting nominated for the Microsoft MVP award in 2015, and starting my YouTube channel. And here I am.

Where do you feel like the Office Insider program fits? What’s the benefit that you get from being an Office Insider?

The big thing for me is that I like teaching and sharing knowledge and creating content. I don’t really like projects. I love teaching people and seeing their eyes light up, and getting email saying, “Man, Oz, you just saved me two days a week.” So the Insider program allows me to see things ahead of time, and get to play with them, and then start making videos to help people. And then it’s content that’s already there for when everybody else gets the new feature or function.

Also, I enjoy being able to give feedback on things, and know that changes are still possible. And with the Insider program, tied with being an MVP, I get to have direct access to the engineers. Through the distribution list, it’s been great to talk with engineers. And a lot of times I might be the only one pushing back on a change, or other times other MVPs are pushing back on something, but I feel like a real partner with the engineers.

Oz du Soleil at Excel Days presentation

What’s one of your favorite features in Excel?

One thing I love is Power Query. It feels like the developers met the users where they are. You know there’s always this cry that “Excel is not a database! Stop using it like a database!” But if you are some four-person company, there is a steep learning curve with having a database. I’ve seen nonprofits that will beg for funding to get a database. Then they’ve got it, and now they’ve gotta go beg for a volunteer to configure it and run it. 

Yeah, so to have Power Query come in with the joins, and built-in features to append data and split columns, and all of these kinds of things. Yes, it’s a lot of database-like stuff, but it’s so powerful for people who cannot use databases. So I loved it when I started learning about it, and I like the continued additions to it. I thank the Excel team at Microsoft for seeing our needs, our reality, and empowering us.

What’s something that you’ve created because of Microsoft, or perhaps Excel, that you’re proud of?

One thing comes to mind. I had a client, an accountant that had all of these freelance accountants working for him. And they had to track what they worked on and for what client, and so we had these tables, and he needed a form where they could list what they had done all day. And so I had to think about how somebody might mess this up, like at the end of the day they might remember something they did in the morning, and they’re likely to put it at the bottom. So now I have to make a formula that will check if anything is crazy, like start times that are after the end time, or tasks that have overlapping time periods.

And so I wrote a 25-level-deep IF statement in Excel. And it worked! I’ve built a lot of things over the years, but I got to go back to that office months later and see that it was still affecting and impacting everyone’s lives for good. That was 100 percent satisfying.

What’s one word you would use to describe the way you work?

“Rogue.” It’s an attitude, it’s a persona, it’s a source of inspiration. When a data challenge looks overwhelming, the Rogue comes out and goes into battle. Or, when I have an ugly but effective solution, I go with it. Later, I might learn a more refined method, but in the moment, the Rogue got the job done.

At the same time, I can’t romanticize going rogue. It’s great to tell stories about being the hero, but there can be a price to pay. And I’ve paid it, several times. So, carefully pick the ditch you’re willing to die in… because you might actually die in that ditch.

I saw that you’ve studied improv and standup comedy. Can you talk about how that has influenced your training videos and social media presence?

Yeah. I’ve been in situations where I could tell people liked me being in front of the room, but then there were times where I would go for a laugh and it didn’t happen. And so I started looking at people I liked, their presentation styles, and saw consistently that at some point in their past they formally studied improv.

So I did four levels of improv at Second City in Chicago. And there’s a few main things that I took away. One is, you’re in charge of a room when you’re in front of it, OK? So take charge of the room. Two, character work is a big thing, so own your character—don’t be half in a character, and kind of apologizing for it. Own it. And some of that character work comes out in my videos.

Oz du Soleil with samurai sword and outfit

Do you have a particular superhero character you identify with, or your own character that you’ve created? I know you’ve got a samurai sword in your Twitter bio picture.

Yeah, that’s me having fun, and creating different situations and characters. Early on, several folks suggested I call myself “Oz, The Wizard of Data.” But a 25-layer IF statement is not wizardry; a 25-level IF statement is getting something done. It’s going to your car and coming back with your sword and saying, “Dang it, this stuff is gonna tighten up, or we are gonna have some real problems.” Yes, exactly.

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