Pivot Tables for Beginners [Interview with Nick Nuss]

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pivot tables headerNick NussRecently I spoke to Nick Nuss, data manager, Excel expert and blogger. I like to think that I’m OK at using Excel, but one of the things I don’t understand is pivot tables. So I figured it was about time I learned how to use them.

Luckily, Nick was on hand to explain all.

If you’ve ever struggled with pivot tables, you’ll want to read this interview.

Nick, how can I use Excel to better report on data?

Excel is very versatile. You already know this. As a project manager, you probably have Gantt charts and templates saved out. Excel solves many of your data problems. As a data manager myself, I use Excel in a variety of ways but the functionality I use most is the pivot table.

OK, basics please. What does a pivot table do for me?

Pivot tables allow a user to report on a large data set in a table format. For instance, if you have to track anything in excel, you can report on it. Financials, time, counts of sick days, anything that you can lay out in a table, you can report on it.

So what do I need to know?

First, I want to tell you about table design. Then we’ll move on to creating your pivot table. Lastly, I’m going to dive into how to best use the pivot tables.

Great. Tell me about tables.

Good table design is essential for good reporting. Garbage in is garbage out in the data world, so if you create your table in a poor way, your reports will not be accurate.

Let’s talk lingo for a second. I will be referring to rows as “records” and columns as “fields” from now on. When we have a record, it will be a unique instance that we want to track. This can be per person, per date, per person per date, etc.

The lower down you go, the more information you can get later on. By tracking at a department level, you may not get the results you want later had you tracked things at an individual level.

What about fields?

Fields are what we will use in the pivot table to describe the records. These can be dates, IDs, financials and numbers to tell us information about what has or is to happen.

It’s important that fields have the correct formatting. For instance, financials should always be listed with the financial signs, and dates should always be listed as a date. Without the correct formatting, when you go to use the data, your dates may not calculate correctly (i.e. the difference between 11/30/2017 and 12/1/2017 is one day, but if you do not have it in date format, excel may calculate it as 1212017 - 11302017 = -10,090,000!).

Got it! Anything else I should know about fields?

Fields can be further broken down into two levels; descriptors and metrics. The descriptors are ways to split the data, such as department and job role. The metrics will be the things you want to control down the road, like your financials or hours.

You can certainly use metrics as descriptors, such as people who work more than 40 hours per week, against people who work fewer than 40 hours.

How do I do that?

It is usually easier to create the data table before creating the pivot table. You can create these metrics with functions like “=if()” which will take on one value when logic is true and another when logic is false. You can even have the function return “true” or “false” if you don’t enter what to do.

To do this, set up this equation =if(CELL >= 40, “what does it do when true”, “what does it do when false”). Be sure to replace “CELL” with the correct cell for your records! You can then click and drag this down your table to auto populate.

IF formula in Excel

This image shows the beginnings of a data table with the IF formula for working out whether someone works more than 40 hours a week.

OK. Any other tips for the data table?

A good rule of thumb is to also have one field set as “count” where you enter a 1 for each record. This allows you to report on the total number of records later that meet a certain criteria.

Keep your records clean as they are created. Fill in each field for the record and keep them accurate. If you can track numbers as a decimal, do so. The more exact you are, the more exact future reports will be.

Each field needs a label name in record one for a pivot table to work. Be sure to name these with descriptive names that you can use later. These labels should be unique for later on. It’s also good practice to label these with the field type in case you forget. Keep “date” in the name for any dates and “amount” for any financial values.

Now I’ve got a good quality data table. Are we on to the pivot table?

Yes, creating the pivot table comes next. Go to a new tab within Excel to keep your table data separate from your pivot table. Select cell D6, which will give ample space for your pivot table to populate. This is will be the upper left of your new report. When we discuss how a pivot table works, selecting down and over will make more sense.

Now, in the ribbon at the top, navigate to the “Insert” tab and select “Pivot table” from the left.

select pivot table

This will open the data selection. Click where it asks you to enter the range for the data.

Now, click on the worksheet tab where you entered your data and select the upper left cell of your data (this will be field A and row 1). Next, press ctrl+shift+end on the keyboard (PC shortcut). This shortcut will select all records and fields in the table. Press enter and you have successfully created your pivot table!

select the data source

This image shows selecting a portion of the data source for creating your pivot table. The full data table is shown below.

full data table

Pivot tables work best with lots of data. In this table you can see resource names, hours worked per week, whether or not the hours are above 40, a field for 'count' and the week number. That gives lots of metrics to analyse and report on.

Excellent! Is that it?

Not quite. The third step is reporting from your pivot table. By selecting the area of the pivot table that we had before, a wizard will appear at the right. The top section will show all of your fields from the data table and the bottom will contain four quadrants. The lower left quadrant will be where you place what descriptors you want for your data. In the lower right, you will place the metrics you want to display. You can still use your metrics in the lower left quadrant, but you cannot report on descriptors in the lower right.

sum of hours

In this pivot table, we've calculated sum of hours per person worked on the project overall during the first 3 weeks.

My favourite part about metrics is you can use the drop down to select properties, and display an average, sum, or percent of the total.

The top two quadrants are used for additional analysis. If you wanted to cross your descriptors by ANOTHER descriptor, you would want to place the second criteria in the upper right. The upper left quadrant is used as a filter, which tells your report “only by these records.” This limits the records to certain selected values, but they do not necessarily show in the report.

average hours

This pivot table shows average hours worked by employees who work over or under 40 hours. We can also add in more columns and see hours worked per week per employee as in the screenshot below.

hours per week

That’s really helpful! I think I get it. Anything else I should know?

You can create any number of robust reports using a pivot table. The value of using pivot tables grows with the size of your data table. The larger the table, the better analysis you’ll get. Pivot tables are fast and easy to create. You will be amazed at how quickly you can report on things in Excel using pivot tables.

For more advanced pivot tables, you could also get data out of a database or Access file as long as you select the data as an import. You can do this from the data tab to allow you to select the information in a pivot table! Excel is amazing.

Thanks, Nick!

About my interviewee:
Nick Nuss coaches and blogs about the super power of Emotional Intelligence over at VocationCultivation.com. He is also a medical claims data manager at a Fortune 500 company and an Excel expert. His mission is that everyone unlock their full career potential by mastering their emotions.

Posted on: November 06, 2018 10:48 AM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Great post and interview Elizabeth, thanks for sharing this.

Good one and thanks for sharing, Elizabeth

I learned something about pivot tables. Thanks Elizabeth.

Thanks! Pivot tables are crucial when working with data, great interview and examples!

Very interesting, thanks for sharing

Excel has so many uses -- if there was ever a MS office certification of training to obtain, it is Excel.

Interesting so much can be done with pivot tables

Hi Elizabeth, felt really good reading about pivot tables. I use pivots a lot it has helped me a lot. Thanks for sharing.

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