Chapter 23   The Cell Master.  Stephen Bullen  from London, England

interview date:5.Feb.2005
Please introduce your self. You may be as thorough as you wish. Feel free to include or omit any detail about yourself.
Hi! My name is Stephen Bullen, I'm 36, divorced, have three children and live with my girlfriend in Woodford Green, London, England. I'm a self-employed consultant, specialising in top-end Excel-based applications, which typically use VB6 dlls for much of the processing and databases (Access, SQL Server or Oracle) for most of the data storage. I therefore use Excel mainly for its calculation and presentation features - as the front-end to my applications. I've been given Microsoft's MVP award each year since 1995.

I've co-authored three books - "Excel 2000 VBA Programmer's Reference", "Excel 2002 VBA Programmer's Reference" and "Professional Excel Development".

My web site,, contains many example files that I've developed over the years in answer to newsgroup questions, most of which are just as relevant today as when they were written. It also contains details about my books, a few helpful utilities I've written (such as the Smart Indenter and VBE Tools) and also hosts the "Excel MVP Page", which is a repository for utilities written by other MVPs.

When do you remember using Excel for the very first time? Can you remember any specific details from that first time?
My first exposure to Excel was with Excel 4.0, trying to port a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet across, including the macros. I remember continually being frustrated with the way Excel selects things; when using End+Down etc, 1-2-3 uses the last cell you selected as the anchor point, while Excel uses the first (e.g. select A1, hold down the shift key, arrow across to C1, then End+Down arrow. Excel does the End-Down from A1, but 1-2-3 does it from C1). Then I discovered the 'Transition Navigation Keys' option, which I still use to this day.

When do you remember writing your first formula or VBA code for Excel?
I don't remember the first formula, but the first VBA was as soon as I got hold of Excel 5. I remember reading the excellent "Getting Started with VBA" manual that came with Excel 5 from cover to cover and eagerly trying out the new language. Some of the first VBA code I wrote was the Smart Indenter, as I was a big fan of the Excel 4 addin that indented XLM macros and wanted one for VBA.

On average, how many hours per day do you spend working with Excel formulas and/or VBA code?
Most of the working day, most days. Some days, I'll do more VB6, SQL or Access work (or writing).

Which do you find most rewarding to work with: Formulas or VBA in Excel? Please tell us why?
Neither. What I find rewarding is to identify and solve a real user or business problem using the tools at my disposal as best I can. I don't care whether that's using formulas, VBA or something other than Excel.

If you were going to give a novice, just starting out with Excel, some advice, what would it be?
Get to know Excel thoroughly before looking at VBA. Many people look at VBA far too early and often end up writing reams of (inefficient) code to duplicate something Excel has built-in. Don't ever be tempted to think you're pushing Excel to its limits; the limit you're hitting is almost certainly due to the way you're trying to use Excel, rather than Excel itself. Step back, think again about the problem and see if there's some other way to tackle it.

Please provide a sample of your first work (either as a formula or vba code) in Excel and tell us about it.
That was so long ago, I don't recall what it was!

What is your mental attitude when you are preparing to write formulae or VBA code? And what is your working environment?
I don't think I have a specific mental attitude, but I find that I do my best work when I have a full understanding of the underlying problem that I'm being asked to solve - I find it extremely frustrating to develop something purely from a written specification. My working environment is wherever I happen to be at the time, which can range from a client site to lying in a lounger at home with my laptop balanced on my legs.

If there special preparations that must be in place before you can begin, what are they?
Just some coffee between waking up and starting work!

Finally, please give us something to think about - a reminder of your words here; a phrase that has helped you; a link to your own website. Anything that you think is important for the readers to remember.
If I'm asked to sign one of my books, I usually write "Don't believe everything you read." That's true for what I write as much as any other author. People can only write down what they believe to be true. Without access to the original source, we can only explain things using our own observations and experience. Remember that even the most prolific and respected people occasionally get things wrong.

Specifically, don't believe it if you read that something "can't be done" in Excel. There is a section of my web site devoted to answers to problems for which people have said exactly that. When someone says "It can't be done", they mean "We haven't (yet) worked out how to do that". You might!


Stephen Bullen

Thank you very much for answering the questions.

This Black belt is yours...

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