Cool is an Expensive Word for Engineers

Not long ago I made a video about Excel-based reporting. You can read it or just watch the video. The best part, the sexy “Only 3-steps required to update the dashboard”, starts at 5:00, and the updated report is shown at 06:15.  This is a data-rich, comprehensive report, I call it a Dashboard, and once the whole scope is understood, I feel no hesitation to call it cool!how-cool-is-that

Cool is an expensive word for Engineers. A thing must be quite special for an Engineer to call it cool. Automated Excel reporting is one of them. It was many years ago when I began to appreciate the power of Excel for Telecoms. The first time I used Microsoft Excel was on a Mac in 1989. My first computing experiences had been using UNIX Computers, and once I had even been forced to use a Compaq luggable running CP/M. But I had never before used a Mac.

Beyond the obvious wow factor of how easy to use the Mac was, I felt pretty at ease transitioning. I had only just joined the mobile business unit of one of the American Baby Bells, and was asked to take over production of a daily report of cell site performance. I had been hired to help set up a new Network Operations Center, NOC, and this Busy Hour report got distributed widely each evening.  One of my peers walked me through the steps to produce the report, which took about 60 minutes each day. I noticed that much of his time seemed to involve manually highlighting rows in a large table, then sorting that block of highlighted rows. My peer did this repeatedly during the walkthrough. I stopped him to ask about the possibility of a different approach to speed up the reporting time. He shouted at me “I don’t have time to find a better way!!!”

So I took the best notes I could, and he gave me some report printouts from previous days to compare with.  I took home one of the paper reports to familiarize myself with it. While reading the paper report it seemed to me that essentially what he was doing was a multiple-key sort. In other words, sorting on several columns at once. I had done this before using the UNIX shell sort command, so the concept was easy to grasp.

The next day in the office I was supposed to produce the report myself.  I sat down to the Mac.  The new day’s data was a simple CSV, and thus easy to import.  This is the point when my peer had started his repetitious highlighting and sorting. From the previous night’s read, I selected all the imported data, then began studying Excel’s sort function. Sure enough, even in 1989, Excel allowed a 3-way sort. I tried it, and straight away I knew this would save a lot of time. Being new with Excel and Mac, I had to undo and retry several times. But by the end of my first day producing this daily report, I knew I could produce it much faster than before.  The next day, I ran through the entire report creation process in 15 minutes, start to finish.  Compare that to about 60 minutes before.  4 times faster improvement on only my second day!


That was a rather long story but it helps to illustrate my 2 key points:

  1. Using a tool in a way it was intended is quite cool. Even for an Engineer.  Excel has so many features, that, WHEN USED PROPERLY, can produce some outstanding results.  You really should build your own Excel expertise.  On the other hand, any tool used wrong reflects badly on the operator.  Don’t do that.
  2. You ALWAYS have time to improve processes. As an engineer, you have an obligation to. What self-respecting Engineer would repeatedly perform tedious and repetitious tasks without at least trying to improve it?  It is an Engineer’s mindset to always be thinking of ways to improve.

Working on these two points is a critical part of building a great career in Telecoms.

You can get your own copy of the Automated Excel Dashboard by clicking the Link.

Automated Excel Reporting Dashboard


What kinds of things are you struggling with in your job? Post a comment and let me know.