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Excel Virtually Global 2020: A Personal Look Back

21 August 2020

Liam Bastick

A few years ago, I came up with the idea for Excel Summit South, an event aimed at those working in finance in Australia and New Zealand. A chance discussion with UK Excel MVP Charles Williams in Amsterdam provided the opportunity to coordinate this with several sponsors. It went well, and led to three more annual events, covering Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, with sponsorship from various banks and accounting institutes. Fellow SumProduct director and Excel MVP Tim Heng helped get some of the sponsors on board and set up some of the logistics as the events progressed.

Regular attendees kept asking us what was going to happen this year, and whilst in the shower one day I realised a physical event was never going to happen in 2020. Therefore, I had the brainwave to host a bigger virtual event that would run for two days – 48 hours – straight. I asked around and actually had enough for 55 hours (which ended up 57 on the day!), made up of MVPs, Microsoft staff and other experts. I didn’t want to stop anyone from presenting, so I invited them all.

In the current environment , the intention was always to raise money to fight COVID-19 and Médecins Sans Frontières was seen as the appropriate charity. Then, tragedy struck when the Excel and Microsoft community learned that ex-Excel MVP and current Microsoft staff member Chris “Smitty” Smith had succumbed to cancer. We decided some of the money should go to cancer research as well. We raised almost A$15,000 for charity, which is not bad given tickets cost c.$33 each.

Organising events like this is like herding cats! Some of the challenges the team and I faced included:

  • One of the biggest issues we faced was less than a week before the event the third party we had contracted with to stage the virtual event pulled out. This put us in a hole as to managing the platform ourselves, which leads me to…
  • I am not going to lie: Microsoft Teams was not always our best friend, although we learned a hell of a lot as the live event continued, and we managed to nail down every issue after the first four hours. The learning curve was steep and whilst all the team pitched in, I think we are all indebted to Tim’s perseverance in working out how to tame the beast. We had Teams MVPs giving us advice on how to set up the event, in addition to the broader Teams training webinars that the community has conducted. All greatly appreciated!
  • Keeping down costs was a challenge. Because we wanted to ensure people donated (so we set a price), this meant we saw about a third of all our fees evaporate, through ticketing fees and various government charges and indirect taxes. I sought accounting advice and got some costs reduced, but I have learned there is probably a better way to do this next time.
  • Timetabling was fun. When you have so many presenters, many of them had particular times they wished to present. We tried to let Microsoft’s Solver do the heavy lifting with this optimisation challenge, but there were just too many constraints. With some negotiation and creative scheduling, we managed to achieve 55 of our 57 sessions programmed as requested.
  • Having a global event causes confusion in arranging presentation times. We sent out calendar invitations to ensure all presenters had the time right in their diary, but many did not read the email / accept the invitation etc. People say they understand UTC / GMT – but they don’t! We got there in the end though – only one MVP was caught out on the day, but we even got hold of them and they happily presented. Organising presenters is more difficult than ice skating on jelly in an earthquake!
  • Dealing with emails – there were so many emails, and some presenters were probably best contacted via a Ouija board. We received all sorts of weird queries. Many attendees enquired about catering (!) but my favourite was one would-be attendee who said she was going on holiday and enquired whether everyone would be free to present the week before for her. It was a challenge not to write what I thought sometimes, but we made a lot of friends, to the extent that some of the attendees have asked whether they can present or moderate next time.
  • Working around the clock was just as fun as we envisaged… To be fair, it was an absolute blast. Running on adrenaline with three to four hours sleep a night, feeding off the energy of other presenters, it’s quite a unique feeling! In terms of what the audience got to see though, one of the best bits in the conference was an ad hoc session that we ran in one of the breaks.

One of the presenters had a video that went for c.20 minutes, so rather than have 40 minutes of dead streaming time, we decided to round up any other MVPs hanging around in the presenter lobby and started a panel session where we took turns answering audience questions. We even had a couple of MVPs who were just watching the stream as an attendee at the time, and they jumped up onto the virtual stage to join in the panel! That was a lot of fun and speaks volumes for the collaborative nature of all the presenters.

To be balanced though, some things were not challenges: it was easy to fill 48+ slots, language barriers were easily overcome, everyone happily marketed, everyone was fully committed and contributed, people turned up on time and hitches were at a minimum (just one internet drop-out).  And we all had fun – and then said we’d never do it again.  But of course we will!

The main thing that inspires me to continue is seeing all the way people use Excel.  When it’s good, I want to propagate it and let the world know.  When it’s bad, I want to show people how they can do things faster and more easily.  With many accounting institutes, I have been talking about “changing the world one accountant at a time” (although it doesn’t have to be accountants!).  This is a great way to demonstrate to people how to avoid mindless, repetitive tasks using Power Query, Power BI or knowing a particular Excel trick or formula.  If you were there, we hope you enjoyed it; if not we hope to see you next time!

You can check out what you watched and what you missed here.

See you in January…

Not everyone pictured here participated – but you get the idea!