At a glance
Neale Blackwood CPA happily calls himself a one-trick pony. However, given that trick involves explaining a program used by more than 1 billion people around the world, you can perhaps see why he never bothered trying to morph into an Olympic dressage horse.
Put simply, the 59-year-old trained accountant excels at Excel. So much so, this month he celebrates 20 years of writing about Microsoft’s venerated spreadsheet program for INTHEBLACK.
“As an accountant, I’m nothing special, but with Excel, I’ve learnt a lot over the years and I have a fairly good memory,” he says modestly.
“It’s a kind of ‘use it or lose it’ program, but I tend to remember most things. It’s a bit embarrassing from time to time when I Google something and it is my own article or blog post that I find that’s explaining it!”
Completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting in 1983 at what is now Edith Cowan University, Blackwood went on to work at the University of Western Australia.
He was an early adopter of Excel on the Apple Mac in the late 1980s, using it in roles at a gold mining company, real estate agency and manufacturer before settling at building products company Midland Brick.
There he says plenty of free reign with his work enabled him to become something of a specialist in the program that rapidly started gaining professional traction in the 1990s.
“Things were really picking up and people started having a PC on their desk,” Blackwood recalls.
“I knew a lot about Excel, so I started sharing tips and tricks in the company and had my own Excel newsletter. Then I started training people in the company.”
Blackwood had his first Excel tips and tricks story published for INTHEBLACK in May 2002. In October that year he turned it into a regular column that has featured in every issue since.
At first, he answered direct questions from CPAs. Now, his remit is tackling a set topic each edition.
Blackwood says a lightbulb moment presented itself in June 2009.
“I had a training course in public speaking and they were videoing me,” he recalls. “
This was back in the day when that was a big deal. The first half of the presentation was Powerpoint and the second half was Excel. When I watched the presentation back again later, I quickly picked up on the fact that when I was using Powerpoint I was boring.
Yet as soon as I got into Excel, I was lit up and animated. I thought at that point, I’m not touching Powerpoint again.” His own training since has been a PowerPoint-free zone.
By 2010, Blackwood had built up his expertise, contacts and business to the point where he could completely go it alone and concentrate on being an Excel expert. Since 2012, he’s conducted more than 350 live webinars for thousands of people around the world and in 2014 wrote the book Advanced Excel Reporting for Management Accountants.
An update of that book, as well as another Excel publication, are possibilities in the coming years.
With much of his business concentrated online and his work largely from home, Blackwood’s work routine didn’t change much when COVID restrictions hit, but his business was affected.
He decided to make his Excel knowledge more accessible to everyone, and ran all of his webinars for free during lockdown, so that people could improve their skills in the program while at home. Up to 390 people joined his sessions at any one time.
“I thought it was a way to give back,” he says. “People had lost their jobs or had some extra time on their hands, so I think they appreciated it.”
While there have been alternate spreadsheet programs over the years and the likes of the free Google Sheets application has recently staked a claim, Blackwood doesn’t see Excel losing its crown any time soon.
“If you took Excel out of all the businesses, they would crash,” he says. “There has been talk that it might die with something like [Google] Sheets, but it just hasn’t happened. In the last 10 years, it has really improved its data analysis. It really is a lot easier than it was in the old days.”
An innate desire of people to “see things in rows and columns” has no doubt helped ensure Excel’s endearing popularity, but Blackwood says the real strength of the program lies in its adaptability across a range of professions from accounting to engineering and statistics.
Of his own ability – what has enabled Blackwood to forge a career across four-decades with one computer program at its core?
“I work with a lot of different companies, and sometimes I think my superpower isn’t Excel but being able to switch between all kinds of different data structures that organisations are using.”
One piece of advice
“Do what you like and follow it. It worked for me. Find out what your strengths are and push them, do something to compensate for your weaknesses.”