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Excel Macro, You’re Hired

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The social news website Reddit hosted a message board conversation between programmers. The topic related to business efficiency: “How many of you are working with at least one person who you could replace with an Excel macro?”

What’s a macro? It’s simple computer program designed to automate a regular task. You might set up a macro to handle repeated typing of automated data, or to click through menu options that are highly consistent. Macros can be a tremendous boost to business efficiency if used correctly.

The spreadsheet package Microsoft Excel includes a language for writing macros that allows advanced users to set up automatic tasks for manipulating the contents of rows and columns.  Although the Reddit discussion includes many off-color jokes and side comments, there are several gems. One user named andrewljohnson relates the following story:

They hired me at an ad agency when I got outta college. One of my duties was to report to clients how much the stories we placed for them in magazines, newspapers, and websites were worth.

So, the method was to measure the article with a ruler, and then look up in the magazine’s media kit what an ad was worth, and multiply the two together.

You have to understand that there were hundreds and hundreds of articles to report on each month. So I could only stand doing this once until I did a few things:

1) wrote some [programs] to [automatically download] articles from websites I was supposed to check

2) figured out the number of words in a “column inch” so I could count the words to calculate their costs, in the cases where I had electronic copies

3) compiled all the prices into a spreadsheet so I could do automatic calculations instead of looking them up by hand.

4) Wrote a script that would spit out the report in the right format, once the data was complete.

All told, I think I saved myself 15-20 hours of work per week, and this led my bosses to let me write more business plans, strategy documents, and ad copy.

So yeah, I knew a guy. He was me, and I replaced him.

business consulting efficiency

© Flickr user Microsoft Sweden

Another commenter named munroe talks about a colleague who was responsible for building key reports for their business. Efficiency was his main objective:

I literally replaced a big portion(3+ hours) of someone’s weekly workload with a 15 line script.

He was receiving data via e-mail, plugging the data manually, variable by variable, into a [formula] then executing that query in the [reporting program].

I set up a mailbox, had him forward those messages to the box, set up [a program] to grab the messages, pull the data out, stick it in the [formula], then run it. Once the message hit the box, the data was inserted in less than 3 minutes.

Not all tales, however, were positive. A user with the handle starspangledpickle offered some toungue-in-cheek advice based on a reference to the popular television show Seinfield:

Tsk, tsk. You need to learn from the George Costanza School of Work.

If it takes two hours to do something manually and your bosses know this, then you use said script and do it in 10 minutes, goof off for another hour and a half and hand in the work 20 minutes earlier. You get praise; you get the job done; you get to surf the [internet].

A similar story of business efficiency comes from coc_ar:

I once wrote a script to save time doing a dull repetitive task, and when I tried to share it with the others in my group who had to do the same thing, one of them said, ‘oh, you’re a cheater’. It totally altered my concept of what ‘cheating’ consisted of.

Is your organization one where saving time by developing a macro would be rewarded, or one where it would be punished? Are you interested in improving overall business efficiency, or does getting more work done in less time threaten your job?  These are not questions of technology, but of workplace culture. What’s the reality at your place of business?

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