Our Insights

A Micro Look at a Macro World

February 19, 2018

By Carrie Bochenek
Project Manager, Environmental Division

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

How many times have you attempted to describe your job as an engineer to friends, family, and peers? I can’t help but imagine that for most of us in the technical engineering fields the default answer eventually becomes “Well, I spend a lot of time working with Excel spreadsheets.”

If that doesn’t captivate your audience (FYI, it probably won’t) you may, at bare minimum, receive a knowing nod of acknowledgement and remembrance of some long-ago Excel spreadsheet assignments from college. They may have learned the basic functions to build some quick tables or create an interesting list or two. They may even use spreadsheets in their career to track information.

If I sense any common ground with my conversation partner regarding their affinity for Excel I can’t help but try and expand the conversation to new levels of Excel-nerd-dom.

Functions? Vlookups? Macros? And the ever dreaded and elusive world of pivot tables? Perhaps my initial description of “spending my days in Excel” sells myself and even our field a little short. In truth, we use the tools at our disposal to solve problems. The more efficient, the better! Creating a formula, function or macro that saves time and adds robustness to a project feels like solving a great puzzle. Every project has thousands of opportunities for creative problem solving.

I remember the first time I saw someone actually use a Macro in Excel. I was in college working on a senior design project. At the time, it felt like the largest, most complicated project I could ever imagine. Oh how naïve the 21-year-old me was. Regardless, a fellow student used a macro to automate something that was taking the rest of us hours upon hours to replicate. While I was jealous my fellow macro-educated student was free to leave the computer lab to sleep and eat while the rest of us toiled away, I thought the ability to learn to code was beyond my grasp.

The magical world of Excel automation remained elusive and mysterious for me for many years. On occasion I would see someone use a macro and dismiss it as something beyond my ability and possible understanding. Fortunately, early in my consulting career I was provided with an awesome opportunity.

I believe the conversation went something like this- “Carrie, we need someone to learn to use macros.” My response- “Hmm… well… I don’t know… I’m not sure… I’ve never done anything like this before… I don’t know if I can… Maybe I won’t be any good at it?” Conclusion – “Great! Get started!” And with that, I was off!

Luckily, I had some amazing experts and peers to learn from. Slowly this mysterious magical world where things operated literally at the touch of a button became less intimidating. I began to record my own macros and modify them in code, often borrowing from previous projects and ample internet search engine results. Soon, every coworker or client need was a puzzle to be solved and simplified through automation.

This eye-opening education provided me with the foundations for my career. The answer to the question of “Can you do this?” is followed with my internal monologue of “I can figure this out,” which inevitably warrants the answer “Yes. Of course we can!”

About the Author:

Carrie is a project manager in POWER’s Austin South office. Her experience includes air quality permit renewal, amendment, and alteration applications for submission to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). She has assisted in the creation and maintenance of various automated excel macro-based data management systems. She has prepared annual emissions inventories, toxic release inventories, and Tier II reports. Carrie has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering from Michigan State University as well as a Master of Science Degree in Environmental and Water Resource Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. To contact Carrie, email her at carrie.bochenek@powereng.com.