Final Chapter | Crunching Data for Absolute Beginners: Learn to Code with Microsoft M-Language for Excel

There is a lot of buzz around coding, and you will find great resources to learn very popular programming languages such as R and Python. You might have been surprised to hear though that good old Microsoft Excel is a great starting point if you want to teach yourself to code. I am not talking VBA here, which is neatly integrated into Excel and has been around for a quarter century (Visual Basic for Applications was first released in 1993, while Excel was introduced to the public 6 years earlier in 1987). M-Language is one of Microsoft’s best kept secrets, few people are aware of it. Once you discover M-Language, you might fall in love with it just as I did.

Once I started digging into the M-Language, I realized that there are no comprehensive tutorials aimed at absolute beginners to programming. “Why don’t I I create that tutorial by myself, thus sharing and documenting my learning journey with others?” I asked myself. There definitely is a lack of resources which are simple and enjoyable for absolute beginners to programming. I am hoping I did a good job at explaining the basics. But there is a lot more to it. Feel free to explore the resources I shared along this course. Also, please leave your comments. Consider this series a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) whith lots of space for improvement.

You learned to clean up data with M-Language

By all means, cleaning up data does not sound overly sexy. However, it’s a priceless, foundational skill. Data analysts & scientists spend a vast portion of their time doing exactly that. Due to IDC research, there are roughly 30 million advanced spreadsheet users worldwide. Approximately €55 billion per year is wasted on repeated effort in spreadsheets — in Europe alone. You might not be an advanced spreadsheet user yet, but imagine pivoting into that role with M-Language skills under your belt. Your timing for this career step couldn’t be better.

According to recent McKinsey research, advancements in automation require up to 350 million workers to be retrained until 2030. Technical competencies such as coding becomes a crucial skill in the 21st century.

Microsoft technology … go with what’s already there

Whether you work for a multinational mining company or a small accounting firm: Chances are that you are already utilizing a bunch of Microsoft products such as Office 365. As a matter of fact, Microsoft is hardwired into the corporate sector, and it’s likely to remain that way. As of now, approximately 750 million people worldwide are using Excel alone. That being said, if you are new to programming, you are better off using software that you already have at hand without messing up with IT.

As an example, try to convince your IT to install an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) for Python 3.6. Even if they agree and say “Yes!” … good luck with the scripts required to get the necessary packages installed. For a newbie to programming, it’s a pure nightmare that can discourage you entirely from learning to code.

Eventually, after some time cleaning, polishing and manipulating data, you might end up learning and using Python just as I did, I do not recommend picking it as your first language though. Open Excel, and you’re just one click away to start learning to code. Life is definitely better that way.

Let’s face it: People still copy and paste data by hand

I’ve observed countless times people copying and pasting data manually from various sources into PowerPoint. That’s the harsh reality, even in the lines of business of multi-billion USD corporations. Screenshotting data from reports is another widespread, antiquated and horrific way to work with data. By now, you are able to pull massive amounts of data via publicly exposed APIs with just a few clicks, mash it up, analyze it and just blow away your colleagues and superiors.

No formal programming background? No worries

Data is the Oil of the 21st century. That opens up opportunities for a broad range for knowledge workers: From data scientists holding PHDs in math and computer science to people like you and me: Professionals who work in the corporate sector, for example in sales, marketing or HR. Smart people who want to ramp up their skills with a fundamental understanding of how to work with data like a pro.

If that characterization fits to you: congratulations! We are part of a growing community of so called Citizen Developers:

“A Citizen Developer refers to an end user who creates new applications or programs from a corporate or collective code base, system or structure. In a general sense, this developer is not a professional developer who is paid to code applications, but an “amateur,” someone who uses the tools available to him/her for building applications that his/her team can or will use during the course of their work.” TechoPedia

Microsoft refers to Citizen Developers as Power Users, and they’ve built a bunch of products such as Microsoft Flow for workflow automation and Microsoft PowerApps for building enterprise grade applications, even with limited coding skills.

Further down the road, you might become the guy who ends up analyzing data, crafting workflows and apps that will make a massive difference in your organization. Does that sound like a plan to you?

What’s next?

In general, learning to code can be really tough. Excel in conjunction with M-Language though allows you to learn in short iteration cycles, get the endorphine kick by instantly applying what you just learned and move on to the next challenge. You will learn the fundamentals of working professionally with data along the way: what relational databases are, how they are composed, how to build and optimize data models and much more. As your appetite for knowledge gets bigger, you might take the next step and learn R and Python which are extremely powerful and popular programming languages among data scientist. M-Language as a query language is a great starting point, the ideal entry level drug into programming. Congratulations for chosing this path!

Who am I, your teacher, anyways?

am just a regular marketing & sales guy who woke up one day and decided to teach himself to code. I made lots of mistakes along the way and I wish someone came up with a series like this one to spare me loads of frustrations.

Let’s recap what you learned in the previous 6 lessons

Let’s recap your learnings:

  • you wrote your first “Hello World!” program
  • you learned about primitive and structured values
  • you wrote some first expressions
  • you learned where to get help in case you hit the wall
  • you gained a bunch of valuable resources to continue learning
  • you demystified APIs and learned how to use them
  • you did a lot of data transformation work and …
  • you learned how to automate that process

You rock!

I wish you all the best and hope to hear from you.

This is my entire course