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Cruel by inevitable extinction of Excel monkeys
November 3, 2008 3:01 PM   Subscribe

What to do about the inevitable irrelevance of my skill set?

I do primarily VBA work in Excel and MS Access an Ops department for a large, publicly traded company. I also do MS Access DB development. This is pretty much all I do, not a side function of a larger job, but my title is 'analyst' -- it doesn't reflect what I do.

I also do process improvement projects, though I'm not a Six Sigma person. It's very ad hoc: meet with department staff, try to draw their disparate spreadsheets and methodologies together, come up with a solution they can all use that doesn't involve six people keeping track of X six different ways. Since there's often some kind of report manipulation or emailing such and such to so and so a hundred times, there's usually some automation, or the development of a database, etc.

I'm not a computer science major; I was a humanities major. I'm reasonably good at this, having done it to for more or less ten years. The past five years as an Ops person, the first five years as part of a solutions development team for end users. Then I used VB5 or VB6. My current company won't allow my area to use VB (IT is technically elsewhere -- I'm not in IT.) I learned VBA after VB.

My career is stalled somewhat (I took a few years off to go to grad school for a useless English degree. I have an MFA) and I don't have the roots or visibility at my current job to advance much there, other than the way that everyone else seems to advance at that company, which is by sticking around long enough that somebody promotes you. This is an old, tired, very non-progressive company and they will not give me .net or update my title. This is a terrible job market, where I live, and there aren't tons of big companies who need the sort of thing I'm describing above.

So I'd like your thoughts on the following:

1. I don't think I do a very good job of saying 'this is what I can do and this is how I can help you' in my resume or my cover letter. A lot of HR people don't know what VBA is, or see how it could fit into a non-IT department. Also, they think process improvement is parsley--you do it as a garnish.How can I present my current skill set in a way that resonates that companies who are not looking specifically for those skills, so they don't see VBA and toss my resume?

2. I don't really believe desktop-driven computing of the Excel variety has a future beyond the next five to ten years. I think Excel will gradually be replaced by web-based applications, and that Microsoft isn't agile enough to be part of it. I think data manipulation technologies will get more user friendly, and there will be less need for report manipulation after the reports have been generated, which is a significant amount of what I automate for people now.

3. Given the above, should I be throwing myself at .Net in my off hours? How can I create a context for that that doesn't feel like homework? (I'm reasonably comfortable with web concepts, have taken a spin in PhP/MySQL, a little HTML, used Wordpress...and CSS stuff appeals to me because I like it's 'place for everything, everything in its place' value system. I've used some scripting elements with the lightest of touches and while I'm not fluent, having devoted very little time to it, I'm not afraid of it and think I'd be good at web-specific stuff. Also: tell me about .Net--what does it do best?

I'm interested in cold, hard business advice ('you need to start managing people if you want to advance') and what skills I should be looking at developing so I don't become totally irrelevant.

To be clear: I like the work and I'm good at it (when it's really going good, I can work on the same technical or interface question or problem for hours and hours, completely happily. I find it very engaging.) but it isn't the meaning of my life--I'd prefer to make more money at it then less, because I'm going to be doing it regardless.

Throwaway email: askmevba@gmail.com

I am so sorry this got so long.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure why you posted this anonymously. Anyway, comments like this:

2. I don't really believe desktop-driven computing of the Excel variety has a future beyond the next five to ten years. I think Excel will gradually be replaced by web-based applications, and that Microsoft isn't agile enough to be part of it.

show remarkable clear thinking and English skills rarely seen in the tech business. Have you considered tech writing? You could also consider quality assurance (also called QA, testing, systest, etc). QA people often have good tech skills but usually try to train up to a full developer status.

Good luck!
posted by chairface at 4:01 PM on November 3, 2008


First decide if you want to stay in a technical track or if you want to move more into a business track. If the former, I can think of two ways to go:
- bill yourself as a reports/data analyst specialist. If you switch jobs, you may need to get up to speed on other reporting systems. Take some courses on statistics and data analysis.
- go towards web tech - get some PHP or other more modern web experience, possibly in a personal project or a class. Describe what you've been doing your resume in terms of technical problem solving and results. If backed up with some more modern buzzwords, that doesn't look bad at all.

If you want a more business track, and that looks to be where your strengths may be, look at job descriptions for 'business analyst' and start shining up your resume toward that area. Get a business analyst or project management certification from an online course. Search AskMe for Business Analyst -- there are a few good threads, but keep in mind that BA or project manager titles can be associated with wide variations in job duties.

There are lots of jobs inside any size company that involve messing about with spreadsheets, creating process, and managing projects. Look for titles like business analyst, project manager, and program manager. The Excel wizardry just means you'll be better at that job with slicker reports.
posted by troyer at 4:07 PM on November 3, 2008


What color is your parachute?
posted by neuron at 4:12 PM on November 3, 2008


Hmm,

"Analyst" is a pretty broad job definition, and is usually given a little more relevance by using another term to define what it is you're analysing (e.g. Systems Analyst / Business Analyst / Process Analyst / Business Improvement Analyst / Analyst - Programmer / etc).

I don't think that the demand on your particular skill set is diminishing. Speaking as someone that employs staff with these skills as a base and having come from there myself, I wouldn't look for your company to articulate this for you; not many people will actually understand it. It's clear to me that you're a bigger thinker than the environment you're in.

If you want to get into the more technical side of things, I'd recommend something like proper (i.e. not MS Access) database development or web development. If you want to do stuff more focussed on business, then go with the process improvement / project side of things. They will focus on using different skills - it's more a case of what turns your handle at the end of the day.

In terms of excel having a limited shelf life. While this may be true, the skills you have built up are definitely transferable, particularly into the database programming environment. I would certainly be able to make use of what it appears you enjoy doing (but then, I am inevitably on the other side world, statistically speaking)...

When all is said and done, I would concentrate on what problems you have helped to solve & how you went about doing it. Tell people a (concise) story, don't say things like "I am proficient with VB6, and more than proficient with MS applications development". Come up with whatever job title you think best encapsulates the collection of skills you use in your everyday job.

If you can't get change where you are, I'd recommend moving somewhere where you feel you could progress your career further (if you can).

my two cents would culminate in forking out for some career development coaching & resume development (in that order).
posted by MatJ at 4:50 PM on November 3, 2008


I don't really believe desktop-driven computing of the Excel variety has a future beyond the next five to ten years. I think Excel will gradually be replaced by web-based applications, and that Microsoft isn't agile enough to be part of it.

Possibly yes, possibly no. I know lots and lots of consultant/banking/lawyer types who spend a lot of time with Excel spreadsheets because a) it's ubiquitous and thus easy to exchange, and b) private. Certain apps/uses will never move into the cloud because the people who work on the data just want it under their control at all times.

Admittedly, ten years is a long timeframe, but there's a lot of inertia out there that involves emailing .xls files back and forth. Excel's current status as a de facto standard means that it'll be pretty hard to uproot entirely, web-based future or no.

On another note, my girlfriend's roommate does IT-and-related HR for a F500 company; she definitely knows what VBA is and how the company uses it. Are you opposed to moving into IT, or just concerned about your chances/qualifications? A lot of companies will use testing and references/experience in making IT hires. While a degree/certification is certainly helpful, it is not *always* required (especially in small shops.)
posted by theoddball at 7:10 PM on November 3, 2008


meet with department staff, try to draw their disparate spreadsheets and methodologies together, come up with a solution

These sorts of critical thinking and ad-hoc solutions are what hold organizations together. Bosses worth their salt know this. Find the appropriate marketing lingo to express that this is what you do, and do well, and you will find jobs.

That said, it couldn't hurt to pick up another (less outdated) language as a skill set. To make it interesting, build a website, or create an app to automate some repetitive tasks you do (financial tracking? Family scheduling? etc)
posted by chrisamiller at 8:53 PM on November 3, 2008


2. I don't really believe desktop-driven computing of the Excel variety has a future beyond the next five to ten years. I think Excel will gradually be replaced by web-based applications, and that Microsoft isn't agile enough to be part of it.

This is probably true already (and probably has been for a while- spreadsheets have their place, but they aren't a solution for everything). Business does a lot of stuff in spreadsheets that would better be done via database.

So continue along that future thinking path and make an educated guess as to what the business analysis technologies will be. And skill-up on those. I'd imagine .Net is probably a good choice, as well as getting good at databases. Apply your "process" methodologies toward creating front-ends and back-ends that work with a company's internal processes. In my experience, companies are very reluctant to give up their back end stuff. If it works, they aren't going to scrap it. So get good at hooking up with the various legacy backends. Many organizations I am familiar with have tried retooling their whole process with a whole new thing, and it failed miserably. And so they invested on creating new front ends for their processes. A place I know had an old text based database/menuing system that their whole operation was based on. Think Paradox, but older. Completely custom built, with 20 years of tweaking and knowledge in the system. It took some effort, but they are slowly building web-apps that interface with the back end. Ultimately, I would imagine, they will have a modular system where the individual pieces can be upgraded and changed as conditions change, without affecting the other pieces. I believe that's where there's still a lot of demand and probably even a lot of growth.

And, work on putting your skills into "normal language". Especially if you are selling your services to non-technical types. Instead of saying "I use VBA and .Net to rebuild Excel applications," say "I use a variety of technologies to build applications and interfaces that work with existing systems, and improve business communication and analysis. (VBA, .Net, ABC and XYZ.)"

And it wouldn't hurt to get some of that six-sigma training. It is really stupid with all the game-playing and silly names for things, but the underlying process, quality and results concepts are solid.
posted by gjc at 7:31 AM on November 4, 2008


Learn to manage IT people and projects. Your work in developing solutions for your co-workers indicates, to me anyway, that you are a synthetic and integrative thinker, and your work and school experience give you both language and technical skills.

The big question is whether you want to program for the rest of your life, or whether you want to make that a smaller part of your daily work. While I am still nominally a technical communicator (writer/editor), I am shifting into project management - I have the knack of translating geek to English and back again.

If you want to program, learn new frameworks and languages - .Net is a reasonable bet, but my little slice of the market seems to be gung-ho about web services and anything in the relational database world. If you think you want to work with business systems and processes, take a Six Sigma class and tell your manager(s) you'd like to start handling smaller parts of projects; you need 4500 hours of documented project management experience before you qualify to take the PMP exam. It's hoop-jumping but it is a documentable benchmark that makes it easier to get promoted/change jobs.
posted by catlet at 9:10 AM on November 4, 2008


follow-up from the OP
Assorted comments and questions below for anyone who's still reading -- thank you everyone for responding. Sorry my response is kind of disjointed.

I think the post favorite to comment ratio on this thread is sort of interesting - I wonder if other people are struggling with some of the same things I am with this.

I posted anonymously because you don't see 'VBA' and 'MFA' together too often and having introduced one of my coworkers to both RSS reads and Metafilter, my whole user history would be outed at work in two seconds. I'm protecting us both from passing out in a fit of too much knowledge.

Re. Tech writing: it probably pays less than I'm making now, and it's less challenging and exciting--doing what I do now, I learn a lot of new things all the time through my own work and curiousity. As a technical writer, information would be mainly handed to me. And I do some documentation within the normal course of my job, and while I like it, I'm not interested in doing more of it. Quality Assurance work has the same problem, probably less pay -- definitely less interesting to me. That kind of sharp eye and precision would wear me out day after day--it doesn't really require the same level of creative output and problem solving as what I'm doing now. And I know we're all supposed to be detail-oriented, the whole world is supposedly detail-oriented, but I kind of enjoy higher level thinking more.

I think what I want to do is stay on a technical track and move into management...the business track/business analyst stuff, not that interesting to me because there's so much less independent problem solving. I work fairly autonomously. I rarely interact with my boss or her boss unless she wants some particular database to keep track of such and such. Report generation isn't that interesting to me. I like interpreting data and coming up with ways that it can answer new or interesting questions, but I don't love that 'run the same report every month and then react to it' routine, or 'justify/explain this number to the VP' kind of stuff.

I think I'll pursue php/mySQl and .net.

Maybe I will check out What Color is Your Parachute!

I'm an Ops Analyst, and it's so vague that I never really do anything on my job description. Never.

I'd recommend something like proper (i.e. not MS Access) database development or web development.
Will MySQL give me enough experience to translate to other DBs or is it too simplistic. (For context, I'm reasonably comfortable writing text-based SQL for Access, including joins and so on.)

If you can't get change where you are, I'd recommend moving somewhere where you feel you could progress your career further (if you can).
Not possible, unfortunately -- family is here, and my partner has a job he loves here. And we have a kid.


my two cents would culminate in forking out for some career development coaching & resume development (in that order).
Any suggestions for resources for this in Western Ma./Connecticut? Is this something I can legitmately do online? With whom?


there's a lot of inertia out there that involves emailing .xls files back and forth.
Don't I know it! But I'm considering the next twenty five years or so -- the rest of my working life.


Find the appropriate marketing lingo to express that this is what you
Any suggestions?


you need 4500 hours of documented project management experience before you qualify to take the PMP exam. It's hoop-jumping but it is a documentable benchmark that makes it easier to get promoted/change jobs.
How does one document this stuff?

Thanks everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 10:21 AM on November 4, 2008


re. sql database development.

I haven't used MySQL, so not sure of it's capabilities. Prior to my current job, like you, I used to primarily use Access for general database use (mainly query writing), but then transitioned to SQL Server in my current role.

It's a lot more powerful & robust (and quicker) than Access. It's not that Access is bad per-se, in fact I still use Access/Excel & VBA for minor app development to allow business users to interact with my SQL databases.

Using some kind of SQL RDMS (MySQL / SqlServer / Oracle) will get you to think a bit more relationally IMO, and you can acheive a lot more complicated stuff more readily than using Access. The quality of your query writing should improve a lot - the syntax will differ from the SQL you write in Access, so expect a learning curve. Remember to comment a lot, and learn to tab out your code so that it readily makes sense. Take courses, read books & use Google lots - someone else will have asked the question that you're trying to answer.

Find something you'll enjoy learning on and go for it. I would recommend starting on the database side of things & build up a base there - it will help with any app development in PHP or .NET that you decide to pick up later on.


On the career development stuff. Recruitment agencies often do this sort of thing, but if your location doesn't really have that sort of thing, I'd seek out a decent career coach online. This is worth researching a bit more heavily though & don't be afraid to ask to give them a call to ask questions or put your mind at ease.

Best of luck.
posted by MatJ at 4:12 PM on November 6, 2008


I meant to also say - MeMail me if you want to chat while staying anon...
posted by MatJ at 5:01 PM on November 6, 2008


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