Jed Guinto

“Tableau vs Excel, which should I use?” This is the most common question I receive from students, young professionals, and even seasoned analysts/programmers. Many think Tableau is here to replace Excel. Others think no tool could ever replace Excel and that it’s all you need to succeed. Are they right? Let’s go back a bit to find out!

The rise of data analytics software

Microsoft Excel is estimated to have 800 million users worldwide, which shows how data — and the need to analyze data — has grown exponentially as digital technology has become more ubiquitous.

According to Techjury, humans have generated 90% of all the data we’ve ever created in the last two years alone. Let’s put that into context. For any given day in 2020:

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Let’s talk industry. Hospitals across the planet must keep track of equipment health, vital signs, patient information, lab results, patient appointments, rosters, salaries, and more. Retail companies must track how many clothes they produce, ship, sell, refund, etc. In construction, people must order parts to specification, store designs, manage project timelines, analyze engineering projects, and manage budgets! In banking, they need strong cybersecurity, fund tracking for hundreds of thousands of clients, stock portfolios, credit card numbers, retirement funds, real estate loans. The list goes on! Do you know what all these areas have in common? You guessed it. DATA!

In the 1980s, we could barely even store data efficiently. In fact, you’d need huge office spaces and storage facilities to store just a little bit of data. As technology evolved rapidly over the years, storage became cheaper, and processing power improved. In 1987, Microsoft Excel spreadsheet software debuted, allowing users to manipulate data and perform complex calculations like never before. It was so successful that 30 years later, practically every industry still uses Excel to manage, clean, process, and share its data.

“Well, if it’s so damn good, why do we need Tableau?” Let’s compare!

The pros and cons of Excel

Pros: Accessibility, cost, and easy to learn.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find organizations without Excel. With its ease of use, you require little to no training making it the first choice for managing data in the industry. It’s also cheap! It’s very affordable, and with Office 365 available via monthly subscription, it’s become even easier to acquire the software.

Cons: Inability to store large data, difficult to consolidate external data, and poor data exploration.

Large data in this context is around 10,000 individual cells or more. As you add calculations, sheets, and visualizations, Excel can begin to slow down or even crash! This is common for old legacy spreadsheets passed on from one user to the next (The oldest spreadsheet I ever found was 11 years old, riddled with errors, and had gone through more than 20 users!). This makes analyzing and exploring large data cumbersome or near impossible, even for the most technical users.

Consolidating external data is also a problem. If you store data in a non-Excel format, it must be converted to Excel’s format first. For large data, you could be waiting hours each day or more. Corporations waste billions of dollars each year just waiting for data to convert!

Enter the IT Division

As data grew over the years, it got more complex. We needed smarter systems for storage, retrieval, and ultimately exploration. Companies then needed IT Specialists to navigate these massive systems. Unknowingly, we became slaves to IT.

Data extraction and manipulation are not cheap or easy. But the idea of paying someone to extract our own data seems crazy to me. From my own experience when working with IT, users can solve 50-75% of their data requests and visualizations themselves, given they had the right tool and basic training. Instead, we outsource to IT services that generally charge USD 10,000 for one-month projects to USD 100,000 for three-month projects. For larger projects, we’re talking millions!

How Tableau empowers the user

Could we get the data ourselves? Could we create our own visualizations? Could we explore our own data?

This is exactly what the people at Tableau had in mind when they designed it.

Tableau is a Business Intelligence Tool created to empower the average user by being extremely user friendly. It’s for those who don’t have computer science degrees, ex-factory workers starting their first office jobs, or those forced into new careers. It’s for those who may not have completed high school or gone to college. I personally fall into several of these categories.

Tableau was designed to help the people mentioned above handle, clean, and explore their own data in ways that are too difficult to do in Excel. The user-friendly interface lets you focus on data and not the software. Average or above level Excel users can basically open the program and start almost immediately. It’s so intuitive, with its drag and drop technology, that I have trained people in their teens all the way to people in their late 60s. 

Excel vs. Tableau: How the data tools compare

To advance in practically any modern career involving data, it is important to understand Excel and Tableau’s original purpose. Tableau was not designed to replace Excel but instead to augment it. Tableau can perform visualizations very easily, perform exploratory analysis, and share information, but it cannot create data. This is where Excel comes in. They must work TOGETHER to give you optimal results.

Data ingestion

To add raw data to Excel, you either create data or obtain it from another source such as a server, web-based app, or internal storage (SAP, SharePoint, Google Docs, etc.). This can take a long time! I’ve seen people waiting several hours a day, every day, just to get their data.

Tableau doesn’t need to download data. Instead, live connections link directly to data sources. This means you can combine data from an Excel file on your desktop, to a Text file in your Google Documents, to a report in Salesforce. This is a massive time-saver!

Performance

Excel struggles when data gets larger. That’s because Excel needs to display all the data all the time! This takes considerable computing power and eventually starts to slow down your computer.

On the other hand, Tableau displays the data directly in a visualized form, such as a bar chart, map, scatter plot, and more. This is computationally more efficient as you don’t need to display every point and allows you to handle a LARGE amount of data. In fact, the largest data connection I ever saw was 4.3 Billion rows of data connected to a Cloud Server on the other side of the planet!!

Data exploration

Tableau does exploration much better than Excel by having interactive dashboards. For example, say you have 3 visualizations; a map of countries, a pie chart of shipping status, and a bar chart of products sold. A deep dive in Tableau is done by clicking directly on which country you’re interested in, followed by a portion of the pie chart such as “shipped on time” and finally which product you’re interested in. Each click filters further down into your data. Basically multiple filters in a graphical and intuitive way. 

Managers LOVE this feature because you can explore the data during a meeting. As questions arise about why certain areas in the business are struggling, clicking on the visualizations lets you explore the reasons WHY!

In my Pre-Tableau days, exploring meant going off for a few weeks to perform the analysis. Tableau lets you do it in real-time during critical moments.

Excel vs. Tableau: The verdict

I believe you need both skills to flourish in the data-future. Every sector I’ve seen uses Excel from Auditing, Legal, Parts, Logistics, Travel, Hospitality, Customer Service, Call Centres, Education, Sales, Manufacturing, Mining, Engineering, Technology, IT, and more.

Microsoft Excel is a fantastic tool! It lets you modify data when required, with its easy to use spreadsheet style. But as data becomes larger and more complex, you need better tools to manage and visualize the information efficiently. This is where Tableau users with strong Excel skills have a significant advantage over Excel-only users. According to CDO Trends, “9 out of 10 companies say their workforce is not achieving optimal productivity due to a lack of data skills!”

Those with strong abilities to manage, distribute, and analyze data have become the most valuable players in every organization because it is the most sought-after skill in the modern era. In my personal experience, I’ve climbed the corporate ranks significantly faster than Excel-only users. In addition, those I’ve trained in Tableau climb faster. They are also able to solve larger, more complex problems. It just makes sense — solving harder problems equals better opportunities, which equates to higher pay!

By understanding how Tableau works, you almost intuitively understand how every other Business Intelligence Tool on the market works, such as Microsoft Power BI, DOMO, Qlikview, and more. This makes you highly employable in a range of industries.

Today, opportunities are plentiful for data-skilled people! For data nerds like myself, and possibly like yourself, you have a bright future ahead, with so much to learn and so many jobs available. Tableau could be your first step into this wonderful new world of data! Who knows, the next time we speak, you may be a Data Analyst, Business Intelligence Analysts (BI Analyst), or even a Data Scientist.

Page Last Updated: January 2021

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