Top International Expert in Excel and Noted Author...
This week, Stephen
Ibaraki, ISP, has an exclusive interview with the highly respected,
international expert and author, Patrick Blattner.
Patrick has authored a
number of books and articles on Excel including “Special Edition
Using Microsoft Excel 2003”, “Special Edition Using Microsoft Excel
2002”, “Special Edition Using Microsoft Excel 2000”, “Microsoft
Excel 2000 Functions in Practice”. His work has also appeared in PC
Computing Magazine and on Tech TV’s live call-in “Call for Help.”
Patrick is a member of
The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and he has spent
several years with Disney Interactive in media development.
Currently, Blattner is working within the AOL product group.
Q: Patrick, we appreciate
the time you are taking to do this interview. Thank you for sharing
your views with the audience.
A: My pleasure.
Q: Please describe your
work with Disney: how did you obtain your job, which attributes were
the most useful in obtaining employment, what skill sets did you
develop, challenges you faced, depict the Disney environment, and
explain the nature of your work?
A: Disney was a great
experience. I initially started out as an analyst working with a
core strategic business group to develop models to handle animation
production. The group was tasked with setting up production
worldwide to produce animation for corresponding pc and console
games that would be delivered day and date with feature film
There were multiple
challenges placed on our team. First, we had to qualify production
houses to meet the quality and standards of Disney animation.
Second, the production studios had to be able to produce large-scale
animation productions within short time frames. Third, these studios
had to work with the individual teams and accurately report
production status to the core strategic group. Last, we had to
develop a dynamic resource model that would schedule animation
within the appropriate animation studio based on capacity at any
This is where Excel came
in. There was no such modeling tool available that would allow for
the 16 variables used to schedule animation production based on a
scheduled release date, studio capacity, and weekly delivered
output. That said I built a dynamic resource model in Excel to
manage the animation - Kind of a MS Project on steroids.
Q: How about your current
work at AOL?
A: AOL has also been a
great experience because of the challenges placed on us to define an
emerging market. With the most recent release of 9.0 I was
responsible for developing a product called SuperBuddytm Icons.
SuperBuddytm Icons are animated feature quality 3D characters that
come to life and enhance your personality while instant messaging.
This is the first time 3D animated characters have been seamlessly
integrated into instant messaging and the initial feedback indicates
we have a hit. Commercials across all the networks and cable started
airing for Superbuddies in early October 03.
Q: You have spent
considerable time becoming a recognized expert in Excel. Why Excel?
A: Excel is by far the
most flexible program of its kind on the market. Over time, it’s
just been the program of choice for managing information, solving
problems, and visually displaying the results in one package.
Q: Describe the evolution
of Excel from 2000 to 2003. What new features were added? Why would
businesses want to upgrade to 2003?
A: The evolution from
2000 to 2003 is more suited for the IT and development community as
oppose to the average Excel user. With the integration of shared
services and XML support, the development community will be able to
create integrated custom applications that will enhance a
collaborative community of users that share an application. The
other features or enhancements have been little snippets here and
there. For example, smart tags. However, they are not that smart and
have proven to annoy users. Hmmm. Sounds similar to another snafu
like “most recently used commands” in menus.
Q: Which features do you
like best in 2003?
A: Very similar to my
previous answer. 2003 features will most likely appeal to the
development community such as the integration of XML support and the
advanced integration of shared workspaces. However, shared
workspaces require Windows Server 2003. While these features may
appeal to the development community, this will not satisfy the
average Excel user. Chances are most users will not see the fruition
of these services within their company. I personally have been under
whelmed by the lack of enhancements to proven features that users
find important in their everyday lives.
My views are less about
IT development tools and more about giving the consumer more power
to control their information without costly upgrades and hardware
dependencies. The lack of attention to fix existing and known
problems or beef up frequently used features baffles me.
Q: Tell us more about
those special capabilities that give Excel its power but are often
overlooked or rarely used.
A: The feature that is
most useful and most misunderstood is PivotTables. PivotTable
development with the PivotTable toolbar has made this functionality
more digestible for the average consumer. I call out Pivot Tables
because the average user struggles with managing information on a
daily basis. By learning how to structure information, PivotTables
can automatically manage the information without introducing
functions or formulas.
The other feature has to
be functions. When combined with formulas it can work magic for
developing models and managing data. Although many use the simple
functions such as sum and average, very few understand the shear
power of functions and how they can manage and save countless hours
of time. Even more - the power of combining functions to create
formulas can help extract and or solve the most difficult of
Q: Share a few real-world
problems that can be easily solved with Excel.
A: There’s one common
problem that spans across multiple business units. That is,
automated visual timelines for use in marketing, production, or
finance. Not only visual, these timelines can manage information
dynamically. One of the most common problems I see in the corporate
world is a difficulty in visually displaying information over time
and setting up an automated model to handle the everyday inputs. I
cover about 8-10 different scenarios in my book that show the
spreadsheet layout and the functions and formulas that will automate
Q: From a development
standpoint, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Excel 2003?
A: Strengths of Excel
2003; Power users and IT departments can further customize Excel
using XML and InfoPath. This allows users and developers to build
structured templates based on XML. Ultimately providing a more
in-depth development environment and hopefully will make it easier
for companies to collect and share data.
However, I’m extremely
disappointed with the lack of advanced features within the core
functionality of Excel that most people use. If MS would have
provided advanced visual and functional capabilities within Excel’s
charting tool this alone would have satisfied a majority of the
users. Instead, they’ve focused on features that require additional
hardware and or features that less than 2% of the market will ever
use such as the ability to program task panes with XML support.
Furthermore, they enhanced a feature that is annoying at best. –
Q: What other books and
articles are you planning? Any topics outside of Excel?
A: I’ve been approached
to write a book on charting and am still evaluating whether I’ll
have the time over the next several months to give it the amount of
time it deserves. This would include Excel but also include more
theory behind charting techniques, the use of color, and skewing
information to fit an audience.
Q: What’s unique about
your most recent book?
A: If you look at my 2000
book compared to my 2003 book you’ll notice a great amount of
refinement that focuses more on theory and why you would create a
certain presentation or manage information a certain way with real
world analytical examples. You’ll also notice that the examples
provided are more thought out than most other Excel books. In
addition, I enhanced the 10+ chapters on formulas and functions.
Last, I’ve included more models that will help every day information
Q: Predict the future?
A: The future of
application development either on the web or in the MS office suite
is no different from other industries in their infancy in the past.
Back when the automobile was invented, you could buy different
styles of cars to suit your taste. Over time, the landscape became
more competitive and the offerings had to speak to the individual
consumer. Now when you purchase an automobile you customize just
about every component to fit your specific taste. This is now
occurring in application development where the landscape has given
the consumer choices and the applications need to be customized to
fit the individual within different market sectors.
Hopefully within the
development of office applications the Microsoft team will
understand that they need to develop these applications for the
consumer using the applications. Allow the user to customize the
experience to fit their usage patterns and make the applications
more integrated as oppose to several independent applications. If a
user could pick and choose what functions or subsets of each
application within the office suite were most important to them and
could combine those features to make one custom application for
their specific use that would be a home run. And make the
customization process consumer friendly without VBA and without the
need for a high end IT professional to set it up. They touched on
this back in the day of the binder, however, the execution and
integration was poor and then they abandoned the product before they
understood the potential of the idea.
Q: Can you provide your
list of the ten most important issues facing corporations and IT
professionals today? How can these issues be resolved?
A: I don’t know about ten
but here’s a few key issues facing the corporate IT departments. The
lack of budgets to support the necessary upgrades, the additional
hardware required to make the applications work in the manner they
were designed, and then teaching the employee how to use all
components to make the upgrade cost effective. When upgrading to new
hardware and software IT departments have to justify the value
proposition. Specifically, if you look at the amount of users still
on Office 97 this functionality satisfies 80% of the users in the
market today. Microsoft is answering this problem by making
mandatory upgrades necessary with new operating system software thus
force feeding corporations to allocate budgets to upgrade. If I were
part of an IT department, I would try to hold off on a major upgrade
until Longhorn delivers. Although this could be 4 years out, it’s
the only major upgrade in the near future that will justify the cost
and deliver the quality.
Q: Which resources do you
find the most useful?
A: I can provide four
resources that are invaluable. Over time you find yourself going
back to resources that are reliable and have updated or refreshed
1) From the Excel end,
the most active community I’ve found has to be the CompuServe
Microsoft Office forum (Excel). Here you can post and answer
questions with some of the most active Excel users from around the
world. Although I don’t actively participate in this forum I use to
go in and review common issues people had with Excel.
2) For information on
presenting: Check out: “Presenting to win” the art of telling your
story by Jerry Weissman.
3&4) For trend analysis,
analytical data, market comparison, or general “how to” visually
present information tap into:
Forrester Research -
Q: Share you most
interesting and funny stories from your past experiences.
A: I would have to say
the most interesting is being in the middle of the rise, fall, and
re-emergence of the Internet. Defining the value proposition for
Internet access and how content and product plays a key role has to
be the most interesting and rewarding because the future of this
market still remains and unknown.
During this time, I have
been faced with countless challenges however the most exciting was
executing on a product that has eluded companies for years - The
seamless integration of 3D content on the web within a chat
experience that works over dialup and broadband has to be the most
significant accomplishment I’ve made to date. Something I call
meaningful execution. Give the consumer an enriched experience
without requiring the consumer to learn anything new.
More ironic than funny is
how I find myself working with key individuals that I use to work
with while at Disney and together we are shaping new experiences on
Q: Why do you do what you
A: I enjoy working in
competitive and emerging markets. To be able to develop and define
products that millions of people touch is rewarding especially when
the products get rave reviews.
Q: Do you have any more
comments to add?
A: Fortunately, I have
been a part of two major corporations that are leaders in their
respective markets. The challenges have been unique in both rights
however; I still use Excel as the application of choice to solve
complex issues and manage information. I then try to bring those
scenarios to life in my books.
Q: It was a pleasure
interviewing you. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge
with our audience.
A: Thanks Stephen, it was