Curtis Frye, author of Step by Step Microsoft Excel 2013, is a long standing, prolific and popular author. So when O’Reilly offered me a complimentary copy of the latest edition to review, I was intrigued. What is so special about the Step By Step format? What do you learn that you cannot learn from other sources? Is it worth you paying money to buy the book?
For Office Excel strugglers worldwide, the answer is a definite yes. Buy this book, even if you already bought the ones before, and catch up with your Excel skills. The author presents well and concisely, so you can cover simple manoeuvres in short order. For management, strategists, and advanced users, the answer is yes, but a qualified yes. For both groups of interested readers, read on and I will explain why.
Firstly, Curtis Frye is clearly experienced at imparting information. So while there is probably very little that is new here, and the content is all about the presentation and operation side of Excel, what the author teaches he teaches well and quickly.
Next up <spoiler alert/> this 2013 edition of the book has a section that I had not seen in earlier editions lying around the workplaces I pass; and this section alone is worth the cover price: feature comparison.
The main point about Excel, strategically speaking, is features. Features are what persuade corporates to keep renewing their licences. Features are what introduce the quirks. features make and break productivity. Features are what are driving us away from proprietary products to open-sourced and standards-based alternatives. Features, in short, creep.
So, for the features comparison alone, this book is worth the cover price. You will find it in chapter 1 where the author promises, rightly, that “You will learn how to: Identify the different Excel 2013 programs, Identify new features of Excel 2013”.
But. Why do we see earlier versions of this book lying around everywhere? Mostly in unwanted locations: coffee tables, water-cooler library shelves, on empty desks with spines unbroken . . . Why? Why with the combined resources of, say, MSDN, MrExcel, Google, and F1 Help is this thirst for knowledge unfulfilled?
Having read Curtis Frye’s book start to finish, and a good part of earlier editions for comparison, I suspect the answer lies as much in the Excel product as in the book. Top-heavy with features, Excel as a tool leaves the user with the taste of unfulfilment, the lingering feeling that they could be doing so much more. Like a scraped iceberg or a half-peeled onion. And meeting that feeling is really the core point of this book.
The book is beautifully presented. Aimed totally at the beginner (even formulas do not appear until midway through chapter 3), the layout has always been clear. The first page of each chapter lists the coming topics as page images. In angled perspective, like Powerpoint 2013. The typography is lovely and clear with very thin-stemmed sans-serif fonts that show well in shrunk, distorted or mobile situations. Text chunks are well-sized and broken up by the usual break-out boxes of hints, tips and asides.
The first time I read the book, my eye skipped most of the break-out boxes. On the second read-through, I noticed something more interesting. Those break-out texts are not the usual tips, tricks and power-user advice. More often they represent the authors struggles and frustrations as he works through the product himself! This is the secret of his success: like you, novice and inquisitive reader, Curtis has also been challenged by the creeping features and complexity of Excel. Look closely and you can detect a parallel subtext in the break-out boxes; a challengingly deadpan acceptance of the Microsoft Office counter-culture.
Like: “IMPORTANT If your data is the wrong type to be represented by the chart type you select, Excel displays an error message.”
Or: “TIP If you don’t know which distribution to choose, use Linear. .. you will most likely know, or be told by a colleague, when to use the others”
Altogether an empathetic author.
Oh, and for power users, a consolation prize at the end of the book: the legendary Excel keyboard shortcuts list!